Peace Meal Supper Club #7: Dirt

Dirt is perhaps the most under-respected culinary ingredient around. But try to cook without it and see how far you get.

More crucial for flavor development than onions or garlic, providing more balanced nutrients than classic 1970s food-combining, funkier and more complex than any fermentation process, dirt is seldom welcome in the kitchen. It is scrubbed off and swept out, lest it land on a diner’s plate.

Cross-section of healthy soil.
Cross-section of healthy soil.

But now and then, we should consider the world comprised by all those grains of dirt. Ecologist Peter Warshall describes it as a richly populated and bustling micropolis whose citizens vastly outnumber us.

“One teaspoon of rich grassland soil can contain 5 billion bacteria, 20 million fungi, and 1 million protists. More microbes live in a teaspoon of earth than people on the planet.”

“Within the grand variety of earths, amoebas slide over grains of sand, hunting bacteria; bacteria swim through microrivers in search of nutrients; viruses puncture the bodies of bacteria and borrow their DNA; nematodes hunt and graze in teeming microforests of algae, devouring like hyenas almost anything that lives.”[i]

Over a square meter, the first few inches of soil contains thousands of ants, spiders, beetles, and fly larvae, along with thousands more of earthworms, slugs, and snails. Outnumbering them all are the nematodes, registering above 10 million.

The soil food web. (
The soil food web. (

The roots of our food plants are not passive overnighters in this underground community. In a wonderfully complex symbiotic relationship, plants’ roots exude the proteins, carbohydrates, and other nutrients that the underground microbes need for survival. In exchange for all these “cakes and cookies,” as microbiologist Elaine Ingham terms these micronutrients, the bacteria and various other deep-dwellers bring the plant its much needed vitamins and minerals.[ii] Fungi spread their filaments, fostering trade over immense areas. Microbes build rain catchment systems, providing water management and drought resistance.

In a properly functioning closed-loop system, we would also be participating in the exchange, consuming the nutrient-rich fruits of these plants, leaving behind the inedible portions of the plants themselves, and returning the digested remains to the soil. All in the same area, keeping the system vibrant–very much like the rest of creation does.

Healthy dirt hums with activity beyond our imaginations. Yet puncture its surface, pour in foreign matter or withhold the natural exchange, and things can come to a standstill. The nutrient balance in the soil–that exchange of goodies between roots and microbes, bacteria and fungi–becomes compromised, sometimes to the point of complete breakdown. The effect is passed along to us, in the reduced nutrient content of our own foods and, eventually, completely unusable soil.

It is very easy to point the incriminating finger at modern industrial agriculture. While that is entirely appropriate, we must increase our depth-of-field: all agriculture contributes to degraded soil, and has for over 10,000 years.

Plowing leaves soil vulnerable to wind, rain, oxidation, and a host of other ills. (
Plowing leaves soil vulnerable to wind, rain, oxidation, and a host of other ills. (

Rattan Lal, Director of the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center at Ohio State University explains: “Nothing in nature repeatedly and regularly turns over the soil to the specified plow depth of 15 to 20 centimeters. Therefore, neither plants nor soil organisms have evolved or adapted to this drastic perturbation.”[iii]

One of the chief effects of all this plowing over the millennia is erosion. Environmental historian J. R. McNeill tells of three major ‘pulses’ of erosion worldwide, the consequences of each of which are still present with us today.[iv]

The first pulse began around 2000 BC, although we still experience its chief side effect: China’s loess plateau has been eroding for 3000 years. Present losses approach 2.2 billion tons of soil annually.

The second pulse occurred in the wake of the European conquest of the Americas, as European farmers used methods which were inappropriate for American soils. The effects of their actions reached into the 20th century, as dust bowls clouded skies around the globe.

This might resemble the US dust bowl of the 1930s, but it's actually Suffolk, England, in 2013. (
This might resemble the US dust bowl of the 1930s, but it’s actually Suffolk, England, in 2013. (

Large-scale industrialization of agriculture in the 1950s kicked off the third great pulse. As a consequence, American farmland still loses topsoil about 17 times faster than it is formed.[v]

David R. Montgomery, Professor of Earth and Space Sciences at the University of Washington, states it this way: “The world’s farmlands erode as much as the high Himalaya…Think about it: it’s quite a trick to make flat-as-pancake land behave like the highest mountains in the world. We’ve managed to transform Iowa and Kansas into places that erode like Nepal.”[vi]

Plowing, that ancient technique so central to modern farming, dislodges root systems, triggers evaporation of the water stored in all those microscopic rain barrels, and disrupts the trade among plants and microbes. The soil’s population dies due to starvation and thirst. Additionally, plowing exposes the soil’s carbon stores to oxygen. These two rekindle their ancient love affair: they join to form CO2, and head for the atmosphere to alter our climate. It is estimated that land misuse accounts for 30% of the carbon emissions entering our atmosphere.[vii]

A formerly agricultural area that has had its topsoil eroded away. Researchers found large-scale farming eroded lowland agricultural fields at rates comparable to glaciers and rivers in the most tectonically active mountain belts. (
A formerly agricultural area that has had its topsoil eroded away. Researchers found large-scale farming eroded lowland agricultural fields at rates comparable to glaciers and rivers in the most tectonically active mountain belts. (

But it’s not just the plow that is wreaking havoc with our soils. One of modern agriculture’s hallmarks is the chemical enhancement of soil. In mid-1800s, wealthy countries began importing Chilean and Peruvian bat guano to enrich their fields. In 1842, an English farmer named John Lawes developed a method for producing artificial phosphorous. This was followed by the more the complex developments of Franz Haber and Karl Bosch in the early 20th century, which yielded artificial nitrogen. Up till then, nitrogen had been produced only by lightning and the bustling symbiosis of the underground.

Other artificial nutrients were developed, and by 1940, 4 million tons of industrial fertilizer were used worldwide. By 1965, that total had risen to 40 million tons. In 1990, 150 million tons were utilized. McNeill considers that this “development was and is a crucial chemical alteration of the world’s soils with colossal economic, social, political, and environmental consequences.”[viii]

McNeill states with chilling understatement that the long-term effects of the use of industrial fertilizers is unclear. In other words, we are still conducting the experiment, in the field, on our sustenance, daily.

Whatever the final outcome, the current observed truth is that these artificial inputs disrupt the communal exchanges in the soil web. They completely alter the nutrient exchange, and when combined with the use of herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides, reduce the soil’s population to nil. In Peter Warshall’s words, soil has become “simply a utilitarian medium in which to grow profitable crops–a substrate which can be improved upon and re-engineered.”[ix]

Living Soil vs Dead Soil, National Resources Defense Council. (
Living Soil vs Dead Soil, National Resources Defense Council. (

Lost is the symbiotic relationship between fungi, bacteria, and plants. Lost are the microrivers and microforests, with their battling microbes. The worms are gone, as are the millipedes and centipedes, beetles, ants, spiders, and slugs. Absent are the nutrients, those hotly traded commodities of the underground markets–which means that they no longer filter upwards into the foods we consume. There are some gains, however, in the form of unhealthy pathogens, soil compaction, and the tendency towards erosion and flooding.[x]

Some have rightly described agriculture as an extractive process, similar to mining. We take out, but do not put back. Consider some of the world’s major crops, those which are grown in massive monocultures and traded internationally: coffee, bananas, citrus, cacao, and even beef. They extract the nutrients from the soils where they are grown. The nutrients travel with these products into other countries, often on distant continents, never to return. The ideal closed-loop process I mentioned earlier is shattered, no part of it remaining intact.

This happens not only with our present-day, internationally traded crops. It began long ago, as cities grew and foods were brought into their markets from outlying farms. The nutrients left the farm for the city, and the city rarely sent back the compost or waste products. The nutrients therefore flowed, and are still flowing, into the sewers, rivers, treatment plants, and oceans.[xi]

Poor agricultural practices are not a new thing, and even in our relatively new country they are as old as the hills. Yale professor Steven Stoll, in his book Larding the Lean Earth, recounts the crisis that hit the United States within decades of the Revolution: its soils were completely exhausted. The depletion of farmlands among the original thirteen colonies were a major impetus for western expansion. Unsurprisingly, the western lands–and the ones further west of those, all the way to the Pacific Ocean–were soon exhausted, too. Exhaustion of land is not a limited phenomenon: arable land is degrading worldwide, at a steady rate.[xii]

A global soil degradation map from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization. (
A global soil degradation map from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. (

Amidst all these tangible losses are more esoteric ones, losses which touch upon our enjoyment of food. The dominant agricultural system produces a limited variety of foods, and it does so even out of season. This quite naturally results in a lack of flavor within specific foods and across the larger spectrum. Diversity among foods–just as among cultures–provides an unquantifiable dimension of enjoyment. It provides an adventurous backdrop for the simple act of eating: flavors become more distinct as we have a greater array to choose from. Seasonality allows us to enjoy these flavors at their peak. Locality allows for truly ripe harvests. And healthy soil transmits a full supply of nutrients.

Foodies and wine enthusiasts–winies?–talk of terroir, the sense of place that accompanies certain foods and beverages. Connoisseurs speak about the slope of the terrain, the vineyard’s proximity to water, fluctuations of temperature, and length of growing season being discernible in a single taste of wine. This almost mystical quality is also applied to chiles, tea, coffee, cacao, and San Francisco sourdough. Perhaps in the distant past it was also apparent in sweet potatoes, peanuts, basil, peaches, and every other food one should choose to eat. Do potatoes grown in Texas taste distinctly different from potatoes grown in the Andes? Perhaps. But with our soils under such duress and being artificially manipulated, the days of terroir might be coming to a close. We are well into the age of homogenization.

Diversity in small-scale farming keeps soils in healthy condition. This is an urban allotment in Sheffield, England. (
Diversity in small-scale farming keeps soils in healthy condition. This is an urban allotment in Sheffield, England. (

But esoteric tasting aside, something larger is missing. It’s our connection to the soil. We shouldn’t need to be connoisseurs fixated on nuances. We should have pride in the things grown in the earth around us, by farmers who love their lands and nurture them in a sustaining and healthy manner. We should value true craftsmanship, as opposed to mass production.

Yet the defining characteristic of our food supply is displacement. Soils are displaced through rampant erosion; nutrients are displaced by artificial inputs; soil-dwelling organisms are displaced by pesticides and fungicides; nutrition is displaced by emptiness. Croplands are displaced by deserts. Climate is disrupted. Social justice is compromised.[xiii]

As a chef, the esoteric qualities mentioned above do matter. But as a progressively-minded human, the displacement, disruption, and compromises matter even more. And as a food-dependent animal, the functioning of our soil matters the most. Dirt is life.

So what is to be done? We certainly cannot discontinue agriculture. But farmers can adopt more progressive practices, using a mix of old and new methods. Consumers can vary their approach too, in meaningful ways.

Untilled, richly composted, and extremely vibrant. (Photo © Kevin Archer)
Untilled, richly composted, and extremely vibrant. (Photo © Kevin Archer)

E Magazine, in its 2006 article “The Scoop on Dirt,” provides a succinct overview: “Progressive farmers can reduce damage to soils by reducing tillage, managing irrigation to minimize water loss (and hence salt build-up from evaporation) and planting cover crops. Planting wind barriers on hillsides and maintaining healthy grass cover on pastures can help prevent erosion. If streams run through a farm property, planting grassed waterways along the stream banks can help trap eroded sediment and bind it up, keeping it from entering and polluting larger water bodies.”[xiv]

Wes Jackson, noted agrarian and the founder of The Land Institute, advocates planting mixed crops in one field,[xv] much like the milpa practice of ancient and modern Mexico.[xvi] In addition, his institute is working on ‘perennializing’ crops such as wheat: growing perennials, as opposed to annuals, greatly reduces disruption of the soil.

An actively eroding rill on an intensively-farmed field in eastern Germany. (
An actively eroding rill on an intensively-farmed field in eastern Germany. (

In conventional agriculture, fields are often left fallow for a year, and this typically means they are devoid of any plants. More progressive farmers, however, plant cover crops during fallow years. Cover crops benefit the soil in multiple ways. For one, they reduce erosion due to wind. They provide a vibrant root network to protect against water erosion. They continue the energetic exchange among soil-dwelling microbes, and, of crucial importance, they help build nitrogen in the soil.[xvii]

By keeping the underground exchange intact, cover crops are also keeping flood-and-drought resiliency intact. In the estimates of Eliav Bitan, a policy associate at the Rodale Institute, even a modest mixture of cover crops–clover, alfalfa, lentils, vetch, fava–would result in a 90% reduction in sediment runoff. As a bonus, this practice would sequester a metric ton of CO2 per acre.[xviii]

Further, by utilizing a system of integrated pest management, wherein crop rotation and natural prey/predator relationships are encouraged, pesticide use can be greatly reduced if not eliminated.[xix]

On the to-do list: Reconnect with soil by planting a small patch of berries. (Photo © Kevin Archer)
On the to-do list: Reconnect with soil by planting a small patch of berries. (Photo © Kevin Archer)

We eaters have a progressive to-do list, also. Perhaps the biggest thing we can do upfront is to become more knowledgeable about our food. We have been passive consumers for too long, and this has enabled the development of a very dysfunctional system. Set aside time to read a few books, some of which are recommended below. Trade out some of the time you currently spend watching The Game of the New Orange & Black Throne, or whatever it might be. This is of far more importance.

Second, become a regular at your local farmers’ market.[xx] This is a common recommendation, because it really is crucial. Go weekly, get to know the farmers, let them know who you are, make them a part of your social circle. It’s not automatic like picking something off the supermarket shelf and going through the express lane. It’s far more than that. You’ll be engaging in your community in a meaningful way, which is something we all say we are missing.

While you’re getting to know your farmers, offer them your compost. Offer to deliver it to their farm. Then walk around their farm and let them tell you about how they feed their soil. They will be happy to have you in their world.

As an eater, include foods that are not the latest vogue. We all love heirloom tomatoes, but we also need to embrace legumes and other soil-feeders. We must make it profitable for farmers to engage in sustainable practices.[xxi]

Extreme soil erosion largely due to overgrazing, in the Mexican state of Michoacan. (
Extreme soil erosion largely due to overgrazing, in the Mexican state of Michoacan. (

Remember, even in the best scenarios, agriculture is tough on the land. The biggest single thing we can do is reduce its extent. This means, without apology or equivocation, that we must remove animal products from our diets. It is an indisputable fact: more than half the world’s crops are used to feed animals, not people.[xxii] To engage in the eating of animals is a deliberate act which actively worsens the problem.

Finally, those of us who are not farmers still need to restore our connection to the soil, to understand this vibrant underworld which supports us. Dr. Paul Hepperly of the Rodale Institute believes this is fundamental to our future. “We need people to grow something—tomatoes, raspberries, flowers—so they understand the land, returning soil to its rightful place in the very center of our lives.”[xxiii]

Yes, it is true: the most important ingredient in my cooking is dirt. It is the genesis of all the foods I enjoy. It provides bounty well beyond my needs. It will feed me forever, if I will return my respect. When I consider flavor development, nutrient supply, diversity, and deep-down satisfaction, the answer is dirt. Glorious, life-giving, sustaining and delicious dirt.

So, giving thanks to the dirt, here is the menu for Peace Meal Supper Club #7: Dirt.

Course 1:
Carrot Ginger Soup ~ Pine Nut Sour Cream ~ Seeded Sourdough Roll
Cake and cookies for the underground.

Course 2:
Golden Beets ~ Cover Crop Cocktail Salad ~ Sesame Miso Vinaigrette
Indulging a nitrogen fixation.

Course 3:
Pu’erh-Smoked Maitake ~ Ful Medames ~ Roasted Sweet Potato ~ Pinot Gastrique
The quest for terroir.

Course 4:
Tiramisu ~ Chocolate Espresso Syrup
Healthy soil is no trifling matter.

Recommended Reading:

Something New Under the Sun, J. R. McNeill
Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture, edited by Andrew Kimbrell
Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, David R. Montgomery
Larding the Lean Earth: Soil and Society in Nineteenth-Century America, Steven Stoll
The State of the World’s Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture: Managing Systems at Risk, United Nations and Earthscan
Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production: Priority Products and Materials, United Nations Environment Programme
How To Grow More Vegetables, John Jeavons


[i] Peter Warshall, “Tilth and Technology: The Industrial Redesign of Our Nation’s Soils,” in Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture, ed. Andrew Kimbrell (Island Press, 2002), 221-222.

[ii] Kristin Ohlson, The Soil Will Save Us (Rodale, 2014), 29-30.

[iii] Ohlson, The Soil Will Save Us, 13.

[iv] J. R. McNeill, Something New Under the Sun (W. W. Norton & Company, 2000), 35-48.

[v] Warshall, “Tilth and Technology,” 224.

[vi] David R. Montgomery, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations (University of California Press, 2007), xi.

[vii] Ohlson, The Soil Will Save Us, 15.

[viii] McNeill, Something New, 25.

[ix] Warshall, “Tilth and Technology,” 222.

[x] Not to stray from the agricultural focus of this piece, but it must be said that another human activity contributes mightily to erosion and general soil disruption: construction. Exposed soils at construction sites erode at an alarming volume. Wal-Mart alone may be responsible for the loss of between 1.5 million and 11.25 million tons of topsoil. Tamsyn Jones, “The Scoop on Dirt: Why We Should Worship the Ground We Walk On,” E Magazine, September/October 2006, 34. Accessible online at:

[xi] McNeill, Something New, 23.

[xii] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Sustainable consumption and production,” FAO at Rio+20,; The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and Earthscan, “The State of the World’s Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture: Managing Systems at Risk,” 113.

[xiii] I make this statement as I consider the Third World countries which supply us with most of our key crops. Cacao, bananas, coconuts, coffee–the list is long. Each of these crops leaves depleted soil in its wake, soil which the developed world will not have to deal with long-term.

[xiv] Jones, The Scoop on Dirt, 39.

[xv] Wes Jackson, ” Tackling the Oldest Environmental Problem: Agriculture and Its Impact on Soil,” The Post-Carbon Reader Series (Post Carbon Institute, 2010), 6.

[xvi] For more on milpas, visit the Sustainable Milpa Project:; also, the unrelated Milpa Project:

[xvii] Ohlson, The Soil Will Save Us, 93-94.

[xviii] Ohlson, The Soil Will Save Us, 108.

[xix] Jones, The Scoop on Dirt, 38.

[xx] Local Harvest lists farmers markets around the country, even in your town:

[xxi] Jocelyn Novak, “Why Chef Dan Barber Thinks ‘Farm-to-Table’ Isn’t Good Enough,” The Huffington Post, June 25, 2014. Accessible online at:

[xxii] United Nations Environment Programme, “Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production: Priority Products and Materials,” 66.

[xxiii] Jones, The Scoop on Dirt, 39.

Peace Meal Supper Club #6: Utopia

Utopia glimmers throughout the menu for this month’s Peace Meal Supper Club, as we face the New Year with thoughts of a New World. What would we want it to look like? As we take mind excursions into perfect worlds, it helps to have a few ideas in our pockets. Having a good meal as we depart is nothing if not practical.

The menu comprises elements of Utopias past, reaching from Greece’s Golden Age through Eden’s Mesopotamian homelands, over the Himalayas into Shambhala, finally arriving in a mystical “no place” in China, where the Peach Blossom Spring flows eternally. It’s a journey of innocents abroad and innocence lost, leaving us wiser and more resilient for our disappointments.

As self-appointed chief cook and bottle-washer of the Peace Meal Supper Club, one of my most enjoyable tasks is to pull together a harmonious cross-cultural menu, one which draws attention inward rather than scattering it hither and yon. Ancient cuisines provide ample room to play; they are supple in their simplicity, bending and blending gracefully as they support a progression of ideas.

The Silk Road
The Silk Road

For this month, I have an additional voice weaving the harmony: the network of trade routes known as the Silk Road. From its early beginnings in the 2nd millennium BCE, this conglomeration of routes eventually stretched from imperial Rome to Beijing, only falling into disuse in the mid-1400s. As an early expression of globalization, its avenues ring with ominous tones: dun dun duuunnn…

Though trouble might be over the next horizon, we can sample local flavors as we tramp along the Silk Road to perfection.

First stop: the shadow of Mt. Olympus, where the Golden Age of Greece began with the creation of humankind. There, as Hesiod tells us, women and men lived in joyful leisure, equally sharing the abundance that the earth provided them, in a state of innocence. Their paradise went up in smoke, however, when Prometheus gifted them with fire. Hell further engulfed them upon the subsequent opening of Pandora’s box.

Echoes of the Golden Age are found in Mesopotamia, in the Bibilical stories of Eden. The garden’s inhabitants were sinless, and through no labor of their own, enjoyed the abundance of a garden. They lived in close communion with their god and had a long life–and apparently a vegetarian diet. Their Utopia vanished in much the same fashion as the Golden Age: an outsider, portrayed as a serpent, introduced them to the Socratic method. Being subsequently banished from Eden, they could not re-enter, as the gate was guarded by an oscillating and presumably righteous sword of flames.

Shambhala cannot be found...but it's nice to know that there's a hotel for those who wander in.
Shambhala cannot be found…but it’s nice to know that there’s a hotel for those who wander in.

Shambhala, our third stop on the Silk Road, lies unreachable in mountainous ranges of Tibet. It is commonly considered a place of peace and happiness, ageless living, and universal enlightenment. The Dalai Lama considers it unreachable by the average person; it can only be found by someone with a special karmic connection.[i] In apparent contradiction to this, it has been vigorously sought by Nazis, Soviet communists, Theosophists, hoteliers, and garden-variety British adventurers. But a land of purity is seldom entered by people with uneasy obsessions.

Equally unreachable is the land of the Peach Blossom Spring. This legendary Chinese utopia is found in a fable dating from 421 CE.[ii] The story tells of a fisherman who happens upon a grove of peach trees. Exploring further, he comes into a glen bustling with happy activity. The inhabitants tell of their ancestors’ flight from civilization many centuries prior, and how presently they will never leave. They entertain him for a week, after which he departs. They admonish him to never seek their utopia again. Although he marks his path on the way out, he can never find his way back.

Off the menu, and as off the road as the Peach Blossom Spring, is the Village Green of one Raymond Douglas Davies, CBE. He is more commonly known as Ray Davies, principle song-writer and leader of the Kinks.

The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society
The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society

“Out in the country/far from all the soot and noise of the city/there’s a village green.”[iii] These hardly seem to be subversive words. Yet in the late 1960s, as London was swinging, Detroit was burning, and San Francisco was tripping in a lysergic flower shower, Davies and the Kinks released a “suicidally unhip”[iv] album that set out to subvert the subversive. It didn’t actually work out that way, of course.[v]

Like the Peach Blossom Spring, few people knew of its existence. But to those who were able to find The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society, Utopia was presented anew. Its thesis—that Utopia was to be found in a small life in the British countryside—sprang from the refusal to accept the world as it was. Equally rejected was the world as proposed by the counter-culture. Our only hope was to go backwards. We must return to “little shops, china cups, and virginity”[vi]—that is, we must expunge ourselves of modern complications and return to days of innocence in the garden.

Contrasting with the fits of violence in the real world around him, Davies’ songs present characters and scenes to serve as touchstones: childhood friends “Walter” and Daisy (she whom he kissed “by the old oak tree”); the motor-biking renegade “Johnny Thunder;” and the local prostitute, “Monica,” much adored as she stands knowingly and enchantingly under the street light. Even ready-made characters are presented for children’s admonition: “Wicked Annabella,” the local witch who will snatch up any children wandering past bedtime, and the flying “Phenomenal Cat,” whose worldly travels have led him to extreme omphaloskepsis.

Among the scenes are family celebrations, with laughter-filled photographs; the big sky, metaphorically standing in for the god of the garden; and the music hall, where performers embarrass and redeem themselves in front of their friends. In perhaps the strongest indictment against the world around him, Davies inhabits an “Animal Farm.” “This world is big and wild and half insane! Take me where real animals are playing!” Ditching the world where dreams often fade and die, he prefers the dirty old shack among the pigs and goats. You can have London, I’ll take Hooterville.[vii]

Reaching to a time before even the village green, Davies’ “Sitting by the Riverside” echoes the words of Zeng Dian, an early disciple of Confucius. When asked about his ambitions, he replied: “At the end of spring, with the spring clothes already been finished, I would like, in the company of five or six young men and six or seven children, to cleanse ourselves in the Yi River, to revel in the cool breezes at the Altar for Rain, and then return home singing.”[viii]

All Utopian writings—from St. Thomas More’s Utopia to Plato’s Republic and the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu–carry with them a disdain for the present world. But they also carry a strongly fabricated nostalgia. In the case of Village Green Preservation Society, Davies was noted as “pining for a simpler, quieter England that probably never existed.”[ix] Like him, we continually insist that the place of perfection did once exist. Enthuses Davies in “People Take Pictures of Each Other:” “People take pictures of the summer, just in case someone thought they had missed it, just to prove that it really existed.” Such emphatic insistence that the alternate world is actually real: this is what gives Utopia its strength. We really believe we can get there.

In the philosophically Eastern world, perhaps, but not so much in the Western.

Lymon Tower Sargent: Utopianism: A Very Short Introduction
Lymon Tower Sargent: Utopianism: A Very Short Introduction

Lyman Tower Sargent, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Utopian scholar, writes of the key contrast between Western and Eastern utopian traditions: It is the presence in Western myths of a Fall, an act of transgression which irreparably ruptured our relationship with the god(s).[x] We are therefore no longer fit for their kingdom. The best we can hope for is an increasingly degrading existence until such a day as Christ returns. For some Christian philosophers, “Utopian thought is itself evil.”[xi]

Conversely, writes Sargent, Eastern traditions have no Fall, no traumatic loss of relationship and place. We still retain the formula for paradise. We can regain the bliss of the Peach Blossom Spring if we would simply follow the formula as it is given. It is ever present with us, if we will stop fighting against it.

As for our hero in Village Green Preservation Society, he chooses unwisely. Just outside the village was that silky, seductive, serpentine road “I sought fame,” he tells us matter-of-factly. Two lines later he laments, “I miss the village green, and all the simple people.” He feels that he cannot return, for his world is now too big to fit into the small life. The villagers might find his worldly self a bit much to take, also. As Michelle Shocked states in “Memories of East Texas,” “Their lives ran in circles so small/they thought they’d seen it all/and they couldn’t make a place/for a girl who’d seen the ocean.”[xii] There’s only so much outer world that Utopia can bear. That’s why the route to the Peach Blossom Spring remains hidden. As for Shambhala, the Dalai Lama has presumably sealed that route for everyone but himself.

This longing to return to a place already built upon nostalgic fantasy maps well against the contemporary vogue of sustainable living and backyard-DIY. Yet, ever like Voltaire’s Candide, we must persevere long enough, and with enough hope, to establish and tend to our own gardens. We must subvert the notion that Utopia cannot be regained.

Occupy Wall Street: For a Better World
Occupy Wall Street: For a Better World

Luckily, the strength of utopian thought is its subversive nature.[xiii] It can be exercised anywhere at any time. Occupy Wall Street was a utopian experiment, as are monasteries, intentional communities, animal sanctuaries, and this humble supper club. They serve as antidotes for the perceived poisons of the world-at-large. They offer suggestions for a cure, and if their idyllic post-card portrayals don’t carry with them exhaustive instructions, they still provide glimpses of an alternative. That alone is motivational: you can’t climb the mountain until you see the mountain.

Oscar Wilde once wrote, “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realization of Utopias.”[xiv]

We iteratively establish Utopias as stepping stones, mile markers to which we can refer when our course needs correction. With each new stone, we are more resilient and capable, winnowing ourselves into the core of what matters. As the powers-that-be successively nudge us closer to calamity, we revert to the soil and the sun and the simple. In this sense of recursion, Utopia is Tao:

Small country, few people
Let them have many weapons but not use them
Let the people regard death seriously
And not migrate far away

Although they have boats and chariots
They have no need to take them
Although they have armors and weapons
They have no need to display them

Let the people return to tying knots and using them
Savor their food, admire their clothes
Content in their homes, happy in their customs

Neighboring countries see one another
Hear the sounds of roosters and dogs from one another
The people, until they grow old and die
Do not go back and forth with one another[xv]

Finally, to get back to supper club matters at hand, we wrap up with a quote from the inimitable Pete Quaife, whose exquisite bass lines adorn The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society: “The Kinks all agree that Sunday dinner is the greatest realization of heaven.”[xvi]

Welcome to Peace Meal Supper Club #6: Utopia. God Save the Village Green.

The Menu

Course 1:
Lemon Rice Soup ~ Dolmas ~ Pita
A reflection of the Golden Age of Greek legend.

Course 2:
Root Vegetable Braise ~ Licorice Root and Juniper Reduction
Edenic abundance from the Fertile Crescent.

Course 3:
Momos (Vegetable Dumplings) ~ Roasted Barley ~ Winter Greens Stir-Fry
Elusive Shambhala beckons from the Tibetan plateau.

Course 4:
Green Tea Poached Pear ~ Ginger Peach Pastry Cream
Peach Blossom Spring takes a Taoist twist into the Great Unity.


[i]; This quote appears in numerous publications. I love that it is being utilized by a hotel. Irony!

[ii]; a PDF of the fable is also here:

[iii] “Village Green,”

[iv] Andy Miller, “The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society,” 33 1/3 Series, Continuum, 2007, pg. 43

[v] The album was almost universally and superlatively acclaimed by critics. However, it was a commercial failure. For a fascinating in-depth read, see the book by Andy Miller listed just above. The Wikipedia article on the album provides a good overview:

[vi] “The Village Green Preservation Society,”

[vii] Hooterville was the setting for two rural American sit-coms in the 60s, Petticoat Junction and Green Acres.

[viii] Shen, Vincent (2013). Dao Companion to Classical Confucian Philosophy, pg 77

[ix] Harold De Muir, “Brothers in Arms,” Pulse Magazine, 1993.

[x] Lyman Tower Sargent, “Utopianism: A Very Short Introduction,” Oxford, 2010, pg. 68.

[xi] Ibid., pg. 98

[xii] There was nation-wide concern over this phenomenon in post-WWI America. Nora Bayes scored a major hit in 1919 with “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm? (After They’ve Seen Paree)”. I would be willing to bet that Ray Davies has this record in his collection.

[xiii] Sargent, pg. 123

[xiv] Oscar Wilde, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” 1891

[xv] Tao Te Ching, chapter 80. I am quoting Ellen Chen’s translation. “The Tao Te Ching: A New Translation with Commentary,” Paragon House, 1989.

[xvi] Miller, pg. 88

Peace Meal Supper Club #5: Gratitude

‘The emancipation of men from cruelty and injustice will bring with it in due course the emancipation of animals also. The two reforms are inseparably connected, and neither can be fully realised alone.’ (Henry Salt, Seventy Years among the Savages, 1921)

In the beginning there was a Great Chain of beings[i]—presumably.

1579 drawing of the Great Chain of Being from Didacus Valades, Rhetorica Christiana.
1579 drawing of the Great Chain of Being from Didacus Valades, Rhetorica Christiana.

It rattled from Plato through Aristotle to Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, surged through medieval thought and into the modern era. In short, it described a god-ordained, spiritual hierarchy of the universe, descending from God to dirt. The chain was rigidly linear, no double-linking or parallel paths. Man occupied the link between angels and animals—and therefore possessed spiritual as well as physical attributes. Animals, linked to man above and plants underneath, were denied any spiritual attributes. Thus disenfranchised, they found themselves subject to greater and greater demeaning, as subdivisions were installed by Aquinas. Positions were later inserted to classify humans of different ethnicities, social standing, and gender–as was to be expected. A being’s position on the chain was, of course, a product of the chain-maker’s spiritual worldview.

As the great chain wound its way through western thought for millennia, it provided an invisible, institutionalized foundation for several major philosophical viewpoints, upholding Christianity’s pronouncements of man’s holiness, Descartes’ decree of animals as automatons, and various destructive philosophies regarding race.[ii]

Surprisingly, no peace came from all these centuries of rattling chains. However, at times visionary men and women have risen up against all the noise, working to end the oppression inherent in such ancient unrelenting systems.

In this edition of Peace Meal Supper Club, we are honoring four modern reformers who fought for fairness on multiple fronts, each of whom left indelible marks upon human progress—and irreparably damaged the great chain.

Anna Kingsford
Anna Kingsford

Anna Kingsford (1846-1888), was a British anti-vivisection activist, women’s rights advocate, and vegetarian writer. In 1874, she left her home in London to study medicine in Paris, at Faculté de Médecine, then the leading medical college. She undertook her education specifically to be a better-informed advocate for animals. Her chief concern was the practice of vivisection, which was being championed by contemporary French doctors and researchers.

Among Paris’ medical elite was Dr. Claude Bernard, Europe’s most prominent proponent of vivisection at that time. He was not only its champion, he was its sociopathic romanticist. He wrote: “The physiologist is no ordinary man. He is a learned man, a man possessed and absorbed by a scientific idea. He does not hear the animals’ cries of pain. He is blind to the blood that flows. He sees nothing but his idea, and organisms which conceal from him the secrets he is resolved to discover.”[iii]

Dr. Bernard and most other scientists typically performed vivisection without anesthesia or regard for the animal’s pain. Kingsford wrote of the screams that echoed through the campus, and that she had found her hell within the academy’s halls, “one that fulfills all the dreams of the mediaeval monks.”[iv] Animals were frequently left bound overnight on the tables, simply abandoned after experimentation.

In this atmosphere, and facing extreme prejudice from the all-male faculty, Kingsford completed her degree in 1880. She was only the second woman to become a degreed doctor—and the first person to ever complete the program without performing a single vivisection.[v]

Her final thesis, L’Alimentation Végétale de l’Homme, explored the benefits of vegetarianism. The irony is rich: her thesis had to be approved by the very faculty she came to condemn. Her thesis was later published in English under the title The Perfect Way in Diet. It was widely read and proved to be hugely influential; among its readers was a young Mohandas Gandhi.[vi]

She died at the age of 41, only a few years after receiving her degree. In those years she published several books on diet and spiritualism, traveled a lecture circuit, founded vegetarian societies, spoke out against bull fights, and campaigned for women’s rights—the latter of which she summed up succinctly yet comprehensively: “Equal rights and equal experiences.”[vii] In these words, we can hear the straining of the old hierarchical chain, links distorting as a new order begins to emerge.

Kingsford had a brief tenure as editor of a lady’s periodical, during which time she met our next honoree, Frances Power Cobbe.

Frances Power Cobbe
Frances Power Cobbe

Frances Power Cobbe (1822-1904) is the embodiment of socially progressive reformers during the Victorian era. Born in County Dublin, Ireland, to a prominent family, she was a prolific writer touching on many topics, some dealing with the status of women, others on the science of the day or historical events, and large number dealing with vivisection. She was blessed upon birth with an extremely active mind and a proclivity towards unconventionalism.[viii]

An influential figure in the British Unitarian movement, she could not comprehend God’s care for all of his creation, contrasted with man’s destructive treatment of creation: “If there be one moral offence which more than another seems directly an offence against God, it is this wanton infliction of pain upon his creatures.”[ix]

To her, there was an undeniable link between feminism, animal rights, and vegetarianism, as they all centered upon the rights of all living individuals to possess their own agency.

Among her more prominent activities was the founding of two anti-vivisectionist societies: Society for the Protection of Animals Liable to Vivisection in 1875, and the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) in 1898. The former was the first organization of its kind; when its governing board began to compromise on vivisection under certain circumstances, she left and began the second organization.[x] Compromise was not a means of progress in her view.

As a women’s rights campaigner she was equally relenting, serving on the executive council of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage in London. She advocated for battered wives, leading to a Parliamentary bill that allowed women to legally separate from abusive husbands. She also pioneered same-sex marriage, entering into a de facto marriage with sculptor Mary Lloyd, which was widely accepted and honored by society.

Her work was comprehensive and tireless, in a world that was very contrary. Her work endured, also: both anti-vivisection groups she founded are still in existence. One of them, the BUAV, is very active internationally in banning the use of animals in testing of products. Products approved by them carry a familiar “leaping bunny” logo.[xi] In addition to lasting work for animals, her work on behalf of women led to lasting reforms, and same-sex marriages are finding acceptance in many countries.

(A harrowing view of the world in which she worked can be seen in accounts of the Brown Dog Affair, a political controversy that raged for seven years in London. A labyrinth of intersectionality and violent oppression, it found medical students rioting in the streets, attacking feminists and anti-vivisectionists as well as police officers. It led to the formation of a Royal Commission to investigate the use of animals in experiments. The Wikipedia article is well worth the read.)

Frances Power Cobbe understood that all humane reforms are tightly connected. All must be pursued as a general program for improving us as humans. We can be better—this is not a judgmental statement; it is one of purpose and direction. Our next protagonist exemplified this in his writings.

Henry S. Salt
Henry S. Salt

Henry Stephens Salt (1851-1939) was an English writer, ethical vegetarian, anti-vivisectionist, pacifist, socialist, and reformer in many fields, including prisons and educational systems. He was a well-regarded classical scholar, conservationist, and literary critic. Salt’s writings influenced Gandhi to embrace vegetarianism. Gandhi was also introduced to the work of Thoreau by Salt.[xii]

Salt has been credited with taking a great step in defense of animals, writing about their rights rather than their welfare. He based this on the fact that the same principles are present when talking about human reforms: “animals, as well as men, though, of course, to a far less extent than men, are possessed of a distinctive individuality, and, therefore, are in justice entitled to live their lives with a due measure of that ‘restricted freedom’ to which Herbert Spencer alludes.”[xiii]

He rejected the notion that there is a fixed separation between man and animals, a “great gulf” that kept them forever separated from justice.

“[The] notion of the life of an animal having ‘no moral purpose,’ belongs to a class of ideas which cannot possibly be accepted by the advanced humanitarian thought of the present day—it is a purely arbitrary assumption…If we are ever going to do justice to the lower races, we must get rid of the antiquated notion of a ‘great gulf’ fixed between them and mankind, and must recognize the common bond of humanity that unites all living beings in one universal brotherhood.”[xiv]

In his book Animals’ Rights in Relation to Social Progress, he addresses the use of animals for food, fashion, sport, and research, posing arguments that are still valid today. Peter Singer, writing in the Preface to the 1980 reprinting, “marvels at how he anticipates almost every point discussed in the contemporary debate over animal rights.” If defenders of animals have added very little to the case Salt outlines, Singer states, they can console themselves because the attackers have come up with few objections that Salt hadn’t already dealt with.

Throughout the book—one of 40 he wrote—his wit and humor shine through.[xv] His was not a bitter pen—he could certainly be acrid when necessary, but compassion is the dominant character of his writing. His sincere desire is for us to create a better humanity, one that is enlightened in its treatment of prisoners, school children, women, domestic animals, wild animals, and even our enemies. It is time for us to take a collective step forward, for the sake of humanity and the world we all inhabit. We cannot be chained down.

“The humane instinct will assuredly continue to develop. And it should be observed that to advocate the rights of animals is far more than to plead for compassion or justice towards the victims of ill-usage: it is not only, and not primarily, for the sake of the victims that we plead, but for the sake of mankind itself. Our true civilization, our race-progress, our humanity (in the best sense of the term) are concerned in this development; it is ourselves, our own vital instincts, that we wrong, when we trample on the rights of the fellow-beings, human or animal, over whom we chance to hold jurisdiction.”[xvi]

Salt extended his work through that of his friends, which included George Bernard Shaw, Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hardy, Annie Besant, and Leo Tolstoy. Due to his friendship with Gandhi, we find him extending his influence through to Martin Luther King. His pacifist bearing and social ideas have influenced countless people working towards peace. His thoughts on animals’ rights have likewise inspired key individuals, such as Peter Singer, and through him, millions.

Peter Singer credits another writer with sparking his interest in ethical vegetarianism, the English writer Ruth Harrison.

Animal Machines, Ruth Harrison
Animal Machines, Ruth Harrison

Ruth Harrison (1920-2000), a noted pacifist and conscientious objector during World War II, wrote the first book that exposed to the world the intensive, industrial processes being used to raise food animals in Britain and America. Animal Machines, published in 1964, is a chilling first-hand account of her visits to concentrated animal production facilities, where layer hens, broiler hens, veal calves, rabbits, and pigs were being raised. These systems are best explained by their proponents.

“Rapid turnover, high-density stocking, a high degree of mechanization, a low labour requirement, and efficient conversion of food into saleable products, were the five essentials for a system of animal production to be called intensive.”[xvii]

A system like this necessitates small living spaces—often too small for the animal to turn or lie down—massive application of antibiotics even in the absence of illness, complicit media and government, and a collective disregard for the individuality of animals, all of this “taken to a degree where the animal is not allowed to live before it dies.”[xviii]

It was a system that was coldly calculated to turn living animals into factory cogs, where their job, 24×7, was to produce their own flesh and by-products for our consumption. It was a cheapening of life on every level, from the human consumer through the ‘farmer’ and his small workforce, and certainly of the subject animals. As she drolly notes, “A danger of accepting any form of life as cheap is that each successive generation might accept slightly lower standards.”[xix]

Her expose goes on to prove that very thought, and the theme of “cheap” recurs frequently. But “cheap” now is expensive in the long run, as antibiotic resistance builds in animals and humans, toxicity concentrates in the environment, and the quality of food degrades rapidly.

The biggest casualty, however, is to our humanity: “How far have we the right to take our domination of the animal world—in degrading these animals are we not in fact degrading ourselves?”[xx]

Her question is worthy of intense examination—deeper even than she anticipated. For while she does connect our treatment of animals to our humanity—as did Salt, Cobbe, and Kingsford—she still allows for our domination of them. Though she questions their treatment in the factory, she never questions their presence in the factory. One can almost hear the old chain rattling itself back together.

Her presentation is not without emotion. In fact, she makes pleas throughout the book toward our sense of compassion, asking us if we can really accept such treatment of animals. In her chapter on “Cruelty and Legislation” she approaches us with both rational and emotional demands, and is unrelenting in her call-outs to the Minister of Agriculture as he defends the faulty Protection of Animals Act of 1911. Her efforts did ultimately lead to greater domestic and international protection of animals in industrial confinement, such as the landmark European Convention for the Protection of Animals Kept for Farming Purposes, established in 1976.[xxi]

All humane-oriented reforms of industrial animal agriculture, including roomier battery cages, free-range facilities, and the banning of gestation crates, owe a debt of gratitude to Ruth Harrison. All animal advocates owe her their thanks, in truth. For her detailed and unequivocal reporting of the conditions has informed each one of us. Her tour of the facilities occurred with the consent of the industrialists themselves—something which will not happen in today’s ag-gag environment.

But as I read her book, landmark and influential and vital as it is, I kept hearing that chain lurching back into place. Her pleas ended at humane treatment, never resolving into pleas for release.[xxii] She seems to accept that the chain is in place and that its existence is proper, provided we tidy things up a bit. Something great has been lost—perhaps in more arenas than one.

Oxford professor Chien Hui Li observes that “the two great wars in the first half of the twentieth century and the repressions and reconstructions that followed were low times for social movements in general and animal defence in particular.”[xxiii] As movements gained momentum again, they lost that sense of connection with one another. Further, in the early postwar period, as industrial techniques were being perfected, we were somehow distracted with an illusory return to normalcy.

However, Professor Li’s painting of the context of the animal rights movement presents a strengthening picture. Writing of the reformers such as Salt in the latter 1800s, she says:

“This radical shift of ideologies in reform politics had a direct bearing on the animal cause and offered it opportunities for change. In general, with the new concepts of ‘kinship of life,’ ‘brotherhood,’ ‘equality’ and ‘justice’ brought by evolutionism and socialism, some people began to see animals not as objects of pity, but as having a right to just and fair treatment. Their watchwords now became ‘justice’ and ‘rights,’ no longer ‘mercy’ and ‘kindness.’”[xxiv]

As disruptive as the 20th century might have been to all social progress movements, we still inherited a strong radical shift in thinking. A benchmark has been set, one that never existed before. We still have their foundation to build upon.

“…[F]ar from being marginal and isolated,” states Professor Li, “[the animal rights movement] has always been closely associated with the major literary, religious, and political traditions contributing to the broad development of humanitarianism. Rather than growing at the expense of each other, reform for humans and other animals developed side by side and showed parallel patterns of emergence, consolidation and transformation from eighteenth-century humanitarian sensibility through Victorian philanthropy to political radicalism in the late-nineteenth and again in the late-twentieth centuries. And despite their different tasks and short-term objectives, the two spheres of reform for the most part shared the same ideological origins, cohered in moral vision, and employed similar rhetoric and tactics in their common pursuit of core human values such as charity, equality and justice.”[xxv]

Li offers advice to current activists, which we would all do well to heed:

“While there may be every need for the animal movement to focus on sharply-defined targets in order to achieve short-term goals, there is an equally urgent need to engage with wider literary, religious, scientific, political and other traditions, and to cultivate the state of mind of belonging to much broader social forces striving in the same directions of charity, equality, and justice. This could not only strengthen activists’ faith in something of a deeper nature and broaden their outlook, but also affect the spirit in which their work is undertaken and make it all the more powerful and appealing to others.”[xxvi]

As Salt might describe it, the gem itself is a greater humanity, the facets of which are numerous. We are the honored lapidarians to whom the essential task of rediscovery has been granted.


While many labor in fragmented movements, there are some who vigorously utilize the comprehensive approach of Cobbe and Salt. Here are just a few:

lauren Ornelas, the Food Empowerment Project

Dawn Moncrief, A Well Fed World

Carol J. Adams

pattrice jones


More on Anna Kingsford:

More on Frances Power Cobbe:

Open Library has digitized many of her books and pamphlets:

More on Henry Salt:

Many of his writings have also been digitized by Open Library:

More on Ruth Harrison:

The following are from the writings of Henry Salt, and comprise a sample of his witty and adept pen. These have all been borrowed from the website listed above.

The Altruistic Flesh-Eater

(“What would become of Esquimaux?”)

This doubt not: if my choice were free,
A vegetarian strict I’d be.
My heart is in your Cause; but oh!
What, then, of those poor Esquimaux?
I dread to think what might betide them,
If flesh were suddenly denied them;
In Greenland, too, so short of green!
How would they get their Vitamines?
They must have blubber, so, in grief,
(All for their sake) I must have beef.

The Cry of the Might have been

“Sir Leslie Stephen’s remark, that no one is so much interested in the demand for pork as the pig, is surely quite valid.” — DEAN INGE

We are the Pigs Unborn, the Pigs Forsaken;
O’erlooked by heedless folk who eat no bacon.
In blank pre-natal Nothingness we pine,
Robbed of that prerogative of swine,
The born pig’s birthright—to be penned in muck,
In garbage grub, be fatted, and be stuck.
Mere ghosts of porkers, pork we’ll never be:—
This, Vegetarian, this we owe to thee!
O deaf to cry of Pigs that Might have Been,
Art thou not cruel? Ask the learned Dean.

The Sufficient Reason

“A fellow feeling makes one wondrous kind.”

“Be kind to animals,” you’re told.
The reasons? Well, they’re manifold,
And some are new, and some are old;
But when all’s said and done,
The motive that you’ll find most strong,
The simple rule, the short-and-long,
For doing animals no wrong,
Is this – that “you are one.”

“I am aware that many of my contentions will appear very ridiculous to those who view the subject from a contrary standpoint, and regard the lower animals as created solely for the pleasure and advantage of man; on the other hand, I have myself derived an unfailing fund of amusement from a rather extensive study of our adversaries’ reasoning.” – in the Preface to Animals’ Rights Considered in Relation to Social Progress

“We must meet this ridicule [of the animal rights movement] and retort it without hesitation on those to whom it properly pertains. The laugh must be turned against the true ‘cranks’ and ‘crotchet-mongers’—the noodles who can give no wiser reason for the infliction of suffering on animals than that it is ‘better for the animals themselves.’”—Animals’ Rights, Chapter VIII, page 123




[iv] Rudacille, Deborah. The Scalpel and the Butterfly. University of California Press, 2000; pg. 35

[v] Ibid, pg. 31

[vi] Stuart, Tristram. The Bloodless Revolution, Norton, 2006; pg. 424







[xiii] Salt, Henry. Animals’ Rights Considered in Relation to Social Progress, 1894; pg. 9

[xiv] Ibid; pg. 10

[xv] See selections below the article for examples of his charming and snarky wit.

[xvi] Animals’ Rights; pg. 110

[xvii] Harrison, Ruth. Animal Machines, 1964; pg. 35. She is quoting from Farmer and Stockbreeder, 19 December 1961)

[xviii] Ibid; pg. 37

[xix] Ibid; pg. 37

[xx] Ibid; pg. 114. The italics are hers.


[xxii] The organization she founded in 1967, Farm Animal Care Trust, continues to educate only about animals in the system. They do not advocate release from the system.


[xxiv] Ibid.

[xxv] Ibid.

[xxvi] Ibid. Really, read the entire article by Professor Li. It is very encouraging.

The Deadly Sting of Animal Agriculture

Abbie Rogers, Guest Contributor

As undercover footage from slaughterhouses and factory farms hits the news media, the public has become more aware of the harm caused by the animal agriculture industry to workers, the environment, and the animals imprisoned in the system. In this system, we breed animals for production efficiency, often using artificial insemination. We cage them, disrupt their natural social groupings and behaviors, ship or transport them over long distances with little concern for their comfort or safety en route, and cull any animal we deem unsatisfactory. We feed them unnatural and unhealthy diets, push them to produce, and routinely treat them with antibiotics to prop them up in spite of stress and illness.

These standard industry practices—routine treatment of cattle, pigs, and chickens—occur out of sight of the general public. Even more invisible is our similar treatment of the honeybee.

While some bee species lead more solitary lives, honeybees, an introduced species in the Americas, live in tight-knit colonies where each bee plays a vital role and each relies on the community for survival. For communal bees like honeybees, the life of the colony revolves around the queen, the only fertile female and the mother of all bees in the hive. The colony’s ongoing survival relies on her reproduction and, while she lays her body weight in eggs each day,[1] the other bees tend to all of her needs, including feeding her, cleaning her, directing her to prepared brood cells, and raising the next generation. In observing colony dynamics, beekeepers have discovered that they can control the hive largely by controlling the queen.

A queen can live five years or more,[2] however many beekeepers replace their queens every year or two for maximum production (similarly, egg-laying hens and dairy cows are routinely discarded as “spent” at only a fraction of their lifespans). Beekeepers generally purchase new queens from professional breeders who regularly ship queen bees, accompanied by a few attendants, in matchbox-sized cages through the postal system. As with newly hatched chicks routinely shipped to backyard chicken fanciers though the mail, the bees are subject to rough handling, temperature extremes, and abandonment at the post office. The fact that companies that ship bees have refund policies for orders that arrive dead indicates that this is not uncommon.[3]

Artificial insemination of (top to bottom) a cow, a turkey hen, and a queen bee.
Artificial insemination of (top to bottom) a cow, a turkey hen, and a queen bee.

In nature, a queen bee leaves the hive at one week old for her “wedding flight,” in which she mates with up to a dozen male drones, supplying her with enough sperm from diverse sources to fertilize her eggs throughout her life. In contrast, queen breeders, like other livestock breeders, often use artificial insemination to control a colony’s genetics, selecting for traits such as docility and honey production. Unfortunately, breeding for production efficiency also means narrowing the gene pool, which weakens the overall honeybee population. Some beekeepers further control the queen by clipping her wings to prevent the colony from swarming. [4]

Honeybees collect pollen and nectar—the latter of which is converted into honey and other glandular secretions—to feed the colony throughout the year. The honey supply is especially vital to the reduced colony that survives through the winter. Depending on the size of the hive and the winter conditions, a colony may consume upwards of 100 pounds of honey over the course of the winter. As with the unnatural grain- and byproduct-based diets of cattle, pigs, chickens, and other livestock, bees’ diets are frequently supplemented with artificial and nutrient-lacking substitutes. In the case of bees, these substitutes include sugar water and corn syrup, fed in times of stress or when a beekeeper removes too much honey from the hive.[5]

(L-R) Beehives shipped cross-country for commercial pollination services, chickens and pigs transported to slaughter.
(L-R) Beehives shipped cross-country for commercial pollination services, chickens and pigs transported to slaughter.
The honeybee colonies trucked in to pollinate this California almond farm can only survive here as long as the almond bloom lasts.
The honeybee colonies trucked in to pollinate this California almond farm can only survive here as long as the almond bloom lasts.

Furthermore, because many large-scale beekeepers have shifted their focus from honey production to pollination services, millions of honeybees are now routinely shipped coast to coast. With monoculture now the dominant system of farming, almond, blueberry, apple, and even alfalfa farmers depend on bees shipped in to pollinate their thousands of acres of crops. No bees can live in a monoculture year-round; there is only food available to them during the crop’s two- to three-week bloom. Instead of planting diverse crops that flower successively throughout the season, farmers rent a truckload of bees to come pollinate their crop for a few weeks, and then the bees are trucked—often thousands of miles—to another farm to pollinate a different crop. This migrant existence stresses honeybee colonies, as does the unbalanced diet of a monoculture.

Humans further manipulate bees to pollinate some of their less preferred plants. In the massive USDA document Insect Pollination of Cultivated Crop Plants, S.E. McGregor states that honeybee disinterest in strawberries “can be overcome with saturation pollination, or overstocking the area with colonies so the competing nectar and pollen are removed;” in other words, an imposed food scarcity can drive bees to pollinate plants they would otherwise pass over. Other suggested methods include caging honeybees with the strawberry plants to eliminate other food options, although studies indicate that caging excludes more effective native pollinators. [6]

Honeybees, like all of us, are especially at risk for disease when they are stressed, overcrowded, genetically limited, or poorly nourished. Since management of bees and other farmed animals expects high production often under these unhealthy pressures, beekeepers and other farmers turn to antibiotics and other medications to treat or prevent illness.[7] Unfortunately, reliance on drugs while continuing to compromise the animal’s overall health and wellbeing can lead to antibiotic resistance that impedes our ability to treat disease in the future.

It is hardly a surprise that recent years have seen a decline in both managed and feral honeybee populations, an increase in newly introduced diseases in bee colonies, and outbreaks of drug-resistant pathogens and parasites. These crises came to a head in 2006, when bee keepers around the United States discovered their hives mysteriously empty, the bees simply vanished. This disappearance, termed “Colony Collapse Disorder,” has been attributed to the compounded effects of pesticides, malnutrition, weakened genetics, parasites, and other stressors.[8]

Interestingly, as far back as 1923, Austrian philosopher and founder of the biodynamic movement[9] Rudolf Steiner predicted a collapse of bee populations–and a decline in ecosystems—by the by the turn of the Twenty First Century, if human manipulation of bee colonies continued. Practices he specifically condemned included:

  • The raising of larva in separate quarters, arbitrary feeding of royal jelly to produce queens, then shipping by post to keepers.
  • Selection of bee populations for docility, de-selecting for aggression.
  • In contrast to the normal 5 or 6-year life span of a queen, “re-queening” after one or two years
  • Using chemical control agents for disease and pests.
  • Providing ready-made combs [and wax] in place of bee-constructed combs, to save work (production time) for the bees

    Commercial pollination routes.
    Commercial pollination routes.
  • Moving of hives over long distances at the will of human intention.
  • Clipping of queens’ wings.
  • Agricultural practices consisting of monocultures that wreak havoc on honeybee diets, limiting options once the dominant crop is no longer flowering.[10]
Chinese farmworkers pollinate fruit trees by hand.
Chinese farmworkers pollinate fruit trees by hand.

Steiner’s prophecy appears to be coming eerily true as we continue to treat honeybees—and the rest of the natural world, domesticated and wild alike—like pieces of machinery that technology can repair or replace. There are clear indications, however, that this mechanical approach does not work. For the last few decades, apple and pear farmers in Maoxian County in China’s Sichuan Provence have been forced to pollinate their fruit trees by hand, climbing to each of the billions of blossoms with a paintbrush and pot of pollen. A history of heavy pesticide use in the county killed off native pollinators, and commercial beekeepers refuse to bring their bees in to pollinate because of the dangerous levels of toxins.[11] While employing humans to pollinate crops does have the economic benefit of job creation,[12] it comes at a high ecological and monetary cost (hand pollination costs the farmers 8 times the cost of bee pollination).[13] If the United States were to rely on hand pollination, it would cost an estimated $90 trillion per year.[14]

Is this the future we can we expect if we continue to commodify and exploit our fellow creatures, from 1/10 gram honeybees to one ton cattle? When it comes down to it, isn’t it more advantageous—not to mention compassionate—for us to view our fellow creatures as having intrinsic value all their own, without regard to their commodity benefit to us? What would it take for us to respect other species—and individuals—as having inherent value, independent of their usefulness to us? I believe the time is overdue for us to turn the tables and give back to those from whom we take.

What can we do to help bees?

  • Plant a garden to feed pollinators and other wildlife[15]

    Bees need water, too!
    Bees need water, too!
  • Set out dishes of water for bees and other thirsty animals[16]
  • Build a bee house to shelter native bees[17] or adopt a hive of honeybees
  • Avoid the use of pesticides and other toxic chemicals in your yard and garden to keep bees and other visitors safe and healthy

    This simple bee house shelters native solitary bees in the midst of a garden to feed them.
    This simple bee house shelters native solitary bees in the midst of a garden to feed them.
  • Buy organic produce to limit bees’ exposure to toxic pesticides in the fields[18]
  • Watch the films More Than Honey[19] and Queen of the Sun[20] and do your own research to learn more about treatment of honeybees
  • Tell others about the inherent value of bees and all other animals.


 Abbie Rogers is co-curator of the landmark exhibit Uncooped: Deconstructing the Domesticated Chicken at the National Museum of Animals and Society, and a caregiver at Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, NY.



[3] For example, and

[4] Swarming is a honeybee colony’s method of reproduction. Bees swarm when the colony grows too big for the hive. The queen and older bees leave to seek out a new home, leaving the old hive to the young nurse bees, who will raise a new queen. From a beekeeper’s perspective, a swarm represents the loss of the prime workforce as well as the original queen’s genetics.


[6] Page 682-4.




[10] This is an edited list; the full list can be found at











Peace Meal Supper Club #4: American Harvest

Peace Meal Supper #4: American Harvest explores the Columbian Exchange, the worldwide interchange of foods, animals, and people that occurred in the wake of Columbus’ voyages.[i] Foods from the Americas led to unprecedented rewrites of traditional global cuisines, as trade between nations expanded into trade between hemispheres. Global economy was born. We are still reeling from the effects of that pivotal event, as food systems, native cultures, world habitats, and social progress bow under the weight of the chimerical force called ‘globalization.’

Through the courses of PMSC#4, I hope to highlight a few of the foods as well as the challenges. As for the food, centuries of careful husbandry—and unparalleled agricultural innovations—produced a stunning array of foods that Europeans, Africans, and Asians had yet to see. A small sampling would include:

agave amaranth arrowroot
avocado sunflower bell pepper
blueberry cashew chiles
cranberries cocoa maize (corn)
papaya peanut pecan
pineapple potato pumpkin
quinoa squash (summer and winter varieties) beans such as pinto, lima, kidney, black, etc.
sweet potato tomato vanilla


There are so many major world crops listed that one almost wonders what the world must have eaten before East met West. We would consider our world strange if we were served linguine without a rich tomato ragout or ratatouille without summer squash. Thai curry would not be the same without peanuts and chiles. Aloo gobi without aloo—potatoes—would only be half as good. As foods of American origin migrated into other cultures’ kitchens, some settled permanently in their agricultural fields, too. In fact, the Americas are now out-produced worldwide on very key crops, such as tomatoes, potatoes, chiles, peanuts, and chocolate.[ii]

These crops having all been commoditized, they are grown on a massive industrial scale, globally. Accomplishing this requires that something else be displaced, be it a more appropriate native crop, a forest, or a native people. In the case of the great American fresh tomato, it can even be a Florida swamp.

Double Tomato Tart
Double Tomato Tart

Course 1, being a Double Tomato Tart, focuses on the tomato. The tomato’s wild origins are along the western coast of South America, although its domestication seemed to occur in what is now Mexico. It was taken to Europe as a curiosity, an exotic ornamental plant considered too dangerous to be eaten. It slowly found culinary acceptance in France, Italy, England, and other parts of Europe. In the last 200 years, the tomato has overcome virtually all resistance to its charms, to the extent that it has lost many of them—especially flavor and personality. It has been manipulated to be uniform in size and shape, to be free of blemishes, and to ripen in warehouses and on transport trucks rather than on its vine. It even holds the distinction of being the first commercially available genetically engineered food, with the introduction of the “Flavr Savr” tomato in 1994. But amidst such glamorous distinctions there are problems.

Seventy percent of all fresh tomatoes sold in the US are grown in Florida, in soil that will of its own accord grow nothing. A highly lethal brew of soil nutrients, herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides is injected at intervals into the sandy fields around Immokalee. Most of these agrochemicals are prohibited for use on other crops, but special sanction has been granted here. In similar fashion, basic labor laws are vigorously flouted, giving rise to immigrant worker conditions which Chief Assistant US Attorney Douglas Molloy considers “ground zero for modern slavery.”[iii] He should know—at any given time he is working on 6 to 12 slavery cases. There is very bitter irony here: the descendants of those that domesticated the tomato are forced into the most unnatural fields in order to supply it to American consumers even out-of-season.

Although I am directly referring to tomatoes grown in Floridian fields, similar practices occur in some form or other across the planet, touching upon every major agricultural commodity. Industrial agriculture, as a system, is broken into disparate and sometimes opposing components, any one of which should provoke passionate outcry from each one of us. Plants are separated from their native conditions, removed from all natural sustenance, fertilized with petroleum products, and tended by workers that are exempted from modern labor law. With its diminishing nutritional profile,[iv] the commercially-produced tomato is nothing more than an economic product, and all efforts will be focused on producing it more cheaply.

The key ingredient in this process is fragmentation. Every component is disconnect from its native character and/or environment—the tomato, the worker, the nutrients, the ethics, and the consumer. No one has a permanent vested interest in how things are going. Everyone is dispossessed.

But leaving out of my house just above Watkins Glen, I can hook around the south end of Lake Seneca and travel north along the eastern shore. Passing winery after winery, I come to a one-lane partially-paved road. That road leads to a small family farm, in operation for nearly two decades. Their commitment to small-scale organic production provided the tomatoes that I roasted for this supper’s Double Tomato Tart. It is a testament to those doing it right in other pockets of the world. It projects hope for progress.

Course 2, Truffled Gnocchi au Gratin, focuses on the potato. Unlike its cousin the tomato, the potato found almost immediate acceptance everywhere it was introduced. And everywhere it was introduced it led to an increase of population—some hold it responsible for 25% of the population growth in the Old World between 1700 and 1900.[v] It is an extremely nutritious food, and currently ranks as the world’s fourth most important crop. It is low in fats, high in carbohydrates, rich in Vitamin C and other micronutrients, full of minerals such as potassium, phosphorous, magnesium, and carries a good dose of antioxidants. It is cheap to produce and will grow under almost any conditions, making it a perfect source of sustenance for poor people everywhere.

However, there is a significant complication: like the tomato, the potato we see today passed through a severe genetic bottleneck on its way to Europe. That is, only a few samples of the subspecies tuberosum were taken, and from them were produced several continents’ worth of potatoes. By contrast, in their native Andes, potato varieties number in the tens of thousands, and their massive gene pool bequeaths them a very robust resilience. The dominant global potato, however, with its compromised makeup, it is a sitting duck for blight, such as that which swept into Ireland in 1845.

Irish dependency on the potato was a product of another feature of globalization: loss of food sovereignty. Though they had rich soil and produced an astonishing array of foods, they had no right to these foods. Marginalized by religious, political, and social maneuvers, they had become dispossessed tenants in their own land. So when the blight hit the potato crop, famine ensued. While thirty to fifty food-laden ships left their ports for Britain daily, over 1.5 million of the Irish died between 1845 and 1852.

We would hope this would be last instance of people dying while sitting in the mouth of the cornucopia, but that’s not the case. From 1969 to 1999, Kenyan vegetable export increases exceeded production increases.[vi] Today in Mozambique, foreign contracts threaten to undermine the needs of the peasants who farm the land.[vii]

This second course is a reminder and a call: people should benefit from the lands upon which they live. They must not be betrayed for foreign interests. Food sovereignty is a natural right for all citizens.[viii]

Sofrito Cornbread Strata with Sweet Potatoes, Poblanos, and Mushrooms; Roasted Chile Cream Sauce; Frijoles Negros
Sofrito Cornbread Strata with Sweet Potatoes, Poblanos, and Mushrooms; Roasted Chile Cream Sauce; Frijoles Negros

Course 3—Sofrito Cornbread Strata–is offered as a counter-illustration to the portraits of the tomato and potato. In this picture there are fewer genetic bottlenecks, even fewer governmental intrusions, and still fewer corporate logos. It’s an ancient practice wherein communities are self-reliant and food sovereignty is the norm.

The picture is of a milpa. The term means “maize field,” but as Charles C. Mann explains in his landmark book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus: “A milpa is a field, usually but not always recently cleared, in which farmers plant a dozen crops at once including maize, avocados, multiple varieties of squash and bean, melon, tomatoes, chiles, sweet potatoes, jícama, amaranth… In nature, wild beans and squash often grow in the same field as teosinte[ix]…below ground, the beans’ nitrogen-fixing roots provide nutrients needed by the teosinte. The milpa is an elaboration of this natural situation, unlike ordinary farms, which involve single-crop expanses.”[x]

Within the milpa’s bounty lie nutritionally complementary foods, with a full span of amino acids, vitamins, fats, and other nutrients. It is a complete system that is not only supportive to our physical bodies, but also to the land upon which it grows.

H. Garrison Wilkes, a maize researcher at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, has called the milpa “one of the most successful human inventions ever created.”[xi] Wilkes’ research led him to fields which have been in production for 4000 years, in sharp contrast to European American practices which led to soil depletion as early as 1820. In his book Larding the Lean Earth, Steven Stoll explores the turmoil of 19th century American farmers as they witnessed the exhaustion of their lands. Many stood for improvement through natural amendments to the soil. Many more chose movement—going westward into newer fields, which they in turn depleted. This low degree of stewardship over the land is the bedrock of our modern industrial system.

Wilkes and other researchers acknowledge that the milpa is not a complete answer to our current dilemma; it simply cannot produce at an industrial rate. Yet the milpa is larger than its technical components: it is a model for sustainability; it is integrated, not fragmented; it promotes stewardship, not abandonment; it encourages community care rather than industrial abuse. Its diversity promotes robust resilience, insulating the community that tends to it. It is the epitome of food sovereignty.

The final course, Peanut Butter Torte with Chocolate Ganache and Malted Vanilla Cream, is a treat fit for Moctezuma—and he could have enjoyed it thanks to his vast pre-Columbian trade network. While he could send for peanuts from present-day Bolivia, cacao from the deep tropics of Mesoamerica, and vanilla from the Caribbean coast of Mexico, we might have to import from India, the Ivory Coast, and Indonesia.

The prima donna among this troupe is, of course, chocolate. Though its consumption was greatly restricted during its pre-Columbian days—due to the laborious processes and therefore expense of production—it has passed into almost daily consumption in North America and Europe, among people of all classes.

As a commodity, chocolate, for the most part, is controlled by only a few corporations. As the Organic Consumers Association puts it, “The business end of chocolate is still the realm of the super elite with over 80% of the world chocolate market controlled by a handful of corporations. The European cocoa trade lineage has stayed virtually unsevered as corporations in the United Kingdom, Holland and Switzerland continue to be the major players.”[xii] They therefore control not only the market, but the entire supply chain. An integral part of that chain, naturally, is labor.

And if you employ children, you can keep your labor costs low. You can further drive down your labor costs by simply enslaving the children. This practice is so common in West African nations that Hershey and Nestle—and the US Congress—have vowed to combat it. In 2001, eight major chocolate companies, three US Congressmen, international ambassadors, and others signed the Harkin-Engel Protocol, a non-binding voluntary agreement aimed at ending the “worst forms of child labor.” Thirteen years later, the problems persist.[xiii]

One would expect a tangle of bureaucracy and obfuscation, certainly. But unexpected by many of us, perhaps, is that the protocol addresses only two countries– Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana—while the specific labor abuses exist worldwide. By focusing on only two countries, it allows the problem to flourish even more in other countries.

Unsurprisingly, Fair Trade has become a hot topic for the chocolate industry. Yet as fair trade standards are set and certifications are implemented, they are deftly undermined by industry leaders.[xiv]

The torte in the final course of this supper comes in the form of a pie slice. From the perspective of an aggressively competitive corporation, there are a limited number of slices in the pie. But from the ground level, where diversity, sustenance, and fairness govern, the pie is infinite. Toxicity by nature instills limitations. Life, however, when allowed to flourish, knows no limits.

American Harvest—the theme for this edition of the Peace Meal Supper Club–holds a double-meaning for me. We have a wondrous bounty upon our tables, a harvest of so many life-giving foods that originated here in these two continents. But today these foods are accompanied by a harvest of oppression. While both harvests are our history, only one should become our legacy.

Here are some diverse and powerful organizations working to bequeath the proper legacy:

Coalition of Immokalee Workers— a worker-based human rights organization internationally recognized for its achievements in the fields of social responsibility, human trafficking, and gender-based violence at work:

Lino Mamani, working to preserve potato diversity in the Andes:

The Milpa Project, preserving heritage foodways in Latin America:

Fair World Project, an independent campaign of the Organic Consumers Association which seeks to protect the use of the term “fair trade” in the marketplace, expand markets for authentic fair trade, educate consumers about key issues in trade and agriculture, advocate for policies leading to a just economy, and facilitate collaborative relationships to create true system change:

Food Empowerment Project seeks to create a more just and sustainable world by recognizing the power of one’s food choices. We encourage choices that reflect a more compassionate society by spotlighting the abuse of animals on farms, the depletion of natural resources, unfair working conditions for produce workers, the unavailability of healthy foods in communities of color and low-income areas, and the importance of not purchasing chocolate that comes from the worst forms of child labor:

La Via Campesina is the international movement which brings together millions of peasants, small and medium-size farmers, landless people, women farmers, indigenous people, migrants and agricultural workers from around the world. It defends small-scale sustainable agriculture as a way to promote social justice and dignity. It strongly opposes corporate driven agriculture and transnational companies that are destroying people and nature:


Read More:

The Columbian Exchange, Alfred W. Crosby

Globalization: A Very Short Introduction, Manfred B. Steger

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, Charles C. Mann

Tomatoland, Barry Estabrook

Larding the Lean Earth, Steven Stoll


[i] The term Columbian Exchange was coined by Professor Alfred Crosby in his book of the same name, published in 1972. In this landmark book, the first to break ground in the field of environmental history, he explored the biological and cultural consequences of Columbus’ landfall in 1492.

[ii] The top 2 producers of certain major crops are:

Cashew: Vietnam, Nigeria

Chiles: India, China

Chocolate: Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana

Maize/Corn: US, China

Peanut: India, China

Potato: China, India

Sweet potato: China, Tanzania

Tomato: Spain, China

Vanilla: Indonesia, Madagascar

Production figures:; FAO Statistical Yearbook 2013

[iii] Tomatoland, Barry Estabrook, p. 75

[iv] Tomatoland, p. x; Estabrook derives his figures from USDA data from Agricultural Research Service reports, 1964, and the 2010 USDA Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, available online at

[v] The Potato’s Contribution to Population and Urbanization: Evidence From A Historical Experiment, Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian,

[vi] Erik Millstone and Tim Lang, The Penguin Atlas of Food, pp. 72-73; World Trade Organization, “International Trade Statistics 2001”; Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, Food Balance Sheets


The current project carries the logo-ready name of ProSAVANA. It is a joint. project of the Japan International Cooperation Agency and the Brazilian Cooperation Agency.

[viii] Food sovereignty has been described as an attempt to return lands to the people who live upon them, and to allow them to benefit from its proceeds. La Via Campesina movement states it more fully:

Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through sustainable methods and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It develops a model of small scale sustainable production benefiting communities and their environment. It puts the aspirations, needs and livelihoods of those who produce, distribute, and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.

Food sovereignty prioritizes local food production and consumption. It gives a country the right to protect its local producers from cheap imports and to control production.It ensures that the rights to use and manage lands, territories, water, seeds, livestock and biodiversity are in the hands of those who produce food and not of the corporate sector. Therefore the implementation of genuine agrarian reform is one of the top priorities of the farmer’s movement.

Food sovereignty now appears as one of the most powerful responses to the current food, poverty and climate crises. (

[ix] Briefly, teosinte is the wild cousin to our corn.

[x] 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, Mann, pg. 225

[xi] 1491, Mann, pg. 226




Peace Meal Supper Club #3: Pollination

For this month’s Peace Meal Supper Club #3: Pollination, I developed a menu to highlight the harvest that has come to us through the gracious work of summer’s pollinators. I wanted to provide various portals into the beneficent hall of mirrors that is our interdependent ecosystem. As I studied the topic more, that hall of mirrors turned into a house of horrors. Thankfully, there is a way out.

One of the principal ideas behind Supper Club is that everyone who attends learns something new about the world around them. This has been a great challenge for me, too, as I must read up on topics with which I might have only moderate familiarity. It’s a crash course each month, for I must complete my research, develop a menu, plan its execution, and write an essay to guide the discussion. Suffice to say that this month’s topic has proven to be a monster. The overlaying of so many issues, the potential impact of continued negligence, the purposeful attacks by industry on our natural systems, the willing cooperation from Congress, betrayal by government agencies, and the millions of unseeing eyes and unlistening ears—it is tough to wrap one’s head around all of it.

I offer my apology up front for the length of this article. Trust me, I have left many things on the cutting floor. This really is only a peek into the stormy darkness inhabited by our most loyal of friends, the pollinators.

Please, when you reach the “Things To Do” section, believe that any one of them can make a real positive difference.


Pollinators, just through the act of being themselves, provide humanity with well over a third of its principal diet. Hiding in all that delectable food are valuable nutrients we simply cannot live without. It’s no stretch to say that our fate is linked with the fate of the bees. Yet they are facing a perfect storm of deadly factors, with the final outcome affecting more than just us and them. The fertility of the earth, and the vibrancy of life upon it, stands in jeopardy.

The facts of this brewing storm are readily available. To begin with, over 100 US and Canadian food crops require animal pollination.[1] Considering non-food crops such as cotton, ninety percent of commercial crops in North America require animal pollination. Beyond commercial crops, seventy-five percent of all flowering plants on earth require animal pollination of some kind.[2]

Animal pollinators include diverse species of bees, butterflies, moths, and myriad other insects. Birds and bats play a significant role, as do many other animals. Bees, however, are the most active commercially, in the form of professionally managed colonies which are trucked around the country from one blooming field to another.[3] In 1947 there were 5.9 million captive bee colonies in the US. In 2005, there were only 2.4 million.[4] This drastic 50% reduction is but one indicator of the storm.

Captive pollinator populations can be quantified, even if the numbers are so large that they stretch our comprehension. Wild pollinator populations, however, cannot be counted so easily. According to the National Academy of Sciences, “For most North American pollinator species, long-term population data are lacking and knowledge of their basic ecology is incomplete. These information deficiencies make definitive assessments of North American pollinator status exceedingly difficult.”[5]

The work of all these pollinators is of dire importance to us. Just consider a short list of food crops made possible by their work: apples, oranges, tomatoes, melons, peppers, squashes, cucumbers—all fruit-bearing plants whose large blossoms evolved to summon the desire of pollinators. Other food plants—broccoli, carrots, fennel, leafy greens, onions, and a host of others—need animal pollination in order to produce seeds. All of these plants add diversity and essential nutrients to the human diet, such as omega oils, antioxidants, vitamins, fiber, and protein.[6]

Some plants which are not routinely consumed by humans—clover and alfalfa, for example–require animal pollination in order to produce seeds. As any biodynamic gardener will tell you, these cover crops are useful for nitrogen development in soils. They are critical, therefore, for any attempt at natural and sustainable food production.

The causes for pollinator decline are numerous, interleaved and linked in an impossible Gordian root-ball. A primary factor among native pollinators is habitat loss, due to sprawling cities and agricultural fields, industrial complexes, oil and gas exploration, mining, and coastal developments. Alongside habitat loss is habitat fragmentation, in which natural areas lie in non-contiguous pieces across a region. Loss of biodiversity, a natural result of so much human development, means less and lower quality food for pollinators. Pesticide use quite naturally diminishes pollinator populations, but the use of herbicides also takes its toll. Both of these alter the landscape significantly, greatly reducing habitable areas. [7]

In addition, diseases and parasites are spread by the interaction between migrating bee colonies being used by commercial pollination services. This not only affects commercial bees, of course: wild bees are also exposed to the pathogens. Wild pollinators work in the same fields as their migrant sisters, and authorities acknowledge that they are suffering many of same effects.[8] We just don’t know how to quantify the wild impact.

Industrial-scale monoculture also plays a large part. The almond groves in California—where 80% of the world’s almond crop is produced—cover an area the size of Rhode Island.[9] Almond trees bloom for only 2 to 3 weeks per year, which means that for the remaining 50 weeks, the area is a vast pollinator desert where no bee can survive. For this reason, 1.6 million commercial bee colonies are trucked in to service the trees as they bloom. When the blooms drop, the hives are loaded up and trucked to other US fields needing pollinators.

These pollinator deserts also exist across vast portions of the American Midwest, where wind-pollinated grains are produced. The vast ‘breadbasket’ of the nation provides no sustenance for bees. The native pollinators that once lived there have been starved out. This is repeated anywhere monoculture exists, regardless of crop. Once a pumpkin field has ceased blooming, there remains no more food for the pollinators.

The cumulative effect is this: the land has become so toxic and unsupportive that bees and other pollinators can no longer function naturally. Massive die-offs are to be expected. The term “colony collapse disorder” (CCD) was coined in 2007 as a means of identifying, and hopefully diagnosing, these massive die-offs.[10]

CCD—a frightening and complex convergence of factors–is more than just a loss of bees, however. It signals a complete breakdown in the ecosystem. We haven’t just poisoned a few bugs. We’ve invoked a systemic ecological collapse.

Government and institutional reports can’t help but relate the problem in terms of economy, as if that were the only thing at stake. From the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) comes this assessment, from their 2007 report “Status of Pollinators in North America:” “Severe shortages of pollinators could cause many common food crops to become more expensive and perhaps less available, but there is no strong evidence for a current pollination crisis in agricultural production in North America. Most animal-pollinated crops can be serviced by honey bees, and farmers are accustomed to paying more for these services when necessary. Chronic pollinator shortages should lead to market adjustments and other innovations, although the demand for supplemental pollination has been strong recently, especially among California’s almond growers. Importing managed pollinators from other countries or regions can lead to the introduction and spread of pathogens and unwanted bee species.”[11]

(Their report contains such circuitous indecisiveness throughout, as if Rimsky-Korsakov were the chief editor.)

The report’s executive summary states the primary concern more succinctly: “Managed pollinator decline and rising cost of pest control could increase pollinator rental fees.”[12] But it’s a much bigger problem than the economy, and will need a bigger solution than just paying higher rent.

By the way, it’s not just human sustenance at stake, but also food which supports a vast number of other species, from bears to birds to voles. Fruits can account for 60% of a grizzly bear’s late summer diet. Roughly a quarter of all birds consume, as a major portion of their diet, fruits and seeds that result from animal pollination. The pollinating insects themselves serve as food for some birds, lizards, and spiders, and are therefore an even more integral part of the food web.[13]

The NAS report acknowledges: “There is a possibility that a cascade of ecological consequences could follow from the loss (or change in abundance) of roots, stems, leaves, flowers, fruits, and seeds—all of which can be resources for herbivores (including seed predators)—produced by plants. A broad range of herbivores and frugivores is supported by such resources, as are parasites and parasitoids of those species. Decreases in seeds, nuts, and fruits could be damaging to many species of insects, birds, and mammals, even if plant populations do not exhibit declines. More severe effects are expected if populations of mature plants become scarcer.”[14]

The Xerces Society puts it this way: “Pollinators are a keystone species group; the survival of a large number of other species depends upon them… [T]hey are essential to the reproductive cycles of most flowering plants, supporting plant populations that animals and birds rely on for food and shelter. Pollinators are also indicator species, meaning that the viability and health of pollinator populations provide a snapshot of the health of the ecosystem. As the insects that many plants require for adequate pollination disappear, the effect on the health and viability of crops and native plant communities can be disastrous.”[15]

Further, “the loss of pollinator species reduces the redundancy of pollinator services in the ecosystem, and thus its resiliency, so that further losses of pollinator species would likely have more severe consequences for the ecosystem.”[16]

All of these concerns figure into scientists’ expectations of the sixth great extinction, presently approaching our doorstep.[17]

It’s almost as if humans—in the form of corporations and government agencies–are now tinkering at the sub-molecular level in our biosphere. As if the natural world’s DNA is being genetically modified in a massive and uncontrolled experiment. The consequences are troubling, and potentially irreversible.

The momentum is fierce, and as predictable, attempts to shift the inertia meet with institutional resistance. In 2013, for example, a bill was introduced to modify the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) to push for faster approval of pesticides to control parasitic pests, such as the varroa mite. While beekeepers protested that many stressors were harming pollinators, this bill only focused on the authorization of another pesticide. A House Agricultural Subcommittee hearing, however, invited no beekeepers. However, Bayer AG, developer of neonicotinoid pesticides, was invited.[18]

This only adds insult to injury, for Congress had already blocked certain pollinator species from protection under the Endangered Species Act, at the discretion of the Secretary of the Interior.[19]

As if we didn’t already know this, it’s time for us concerned citizens to play the role of pathogens within the dominant system. We must use alternative avenues for subverting the collusion between agricultural industry and our government. One need not be an alarmist or a hyper-reactionary to understand that our system is not functioning healthfully.

Yet simple acts on our part can lead to better conditions. If we do not feel we are changing the dominant inertia, we should be confident that we are acting as preservers, holding on to the things that do work, so that they will be vibrant at the moment that they become vital.

Here are several accessible and sustainable acts everyone can perform. Collectively they will establish alternative habitats, safe houses for our companions, the pollinators.

What To Do:

Put out water for bees. This is something we all can do, starting today. As habitats are compromised, bees have a difficult time finding fresh water. Use a shallow pan, and place small stones in it so the bees have a place to light while they drink.

Support organic agriculture, even if it the fields are thousands of miles away. “Organic” is far more important than “local.” Can you explain why this is true?

Plant food gardens. With the food gardens, you are feeding pollinators as well as yourself, thereby lessening the reach of industrial agriculture. By growing what you need throughout the summer, you are providing a progression of diverse blooms, which all pollinators need.

Support a CSA or similar farm, one which grows diverse crops that flower throughout the spring, summer, and autumn. Organic small-scale farms provide environments where pollinators thrive.

Create habitats, specifically with native flowering plants, like wildflowers. You’ll find planting guides at two of the websites listed below.

Adopt a bee colony. Although it is a recent development, there are vegans who keep bees simply to provide them a good home. This is no different than adopting a hen, goat, pig, or dog from a sanctuary or shelter.

Learn more. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.

The Organic Consumers Association has countless articles regarding bees and issues they face. These links lead to a few of them. — The main page of the bee section. contains a list of ways in which we’ve meddled with the natural lives of bees. provides an overview of Colony Collapse Disorder.

Pollinator Partnership:
They offer comprehensive planting guides for supporting pollinators: The Simply Have Areas Reserved for the Environment program provides a wonderfully accessible way in which everyone, anyone, can provide natural habitat.

The Center for Food Safety covers a multitude of topics, including pollinators-related challenges.

The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation,, exists specifically to help insects survive in a world that seems determined to eradicate them. They have extensive guides for planting and preservation, such as this one:

The Pesticide Action Network has a current campaign focusing on pollinators and pesticides:

More Than Honey, a film by Markus Imhoof, provides a powerful and spell-binding look into the modern world of bees.

Attracting Native Pollinators, by the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, published by Storey Publishing, 2011. This book is an easy-to-read and informative guide for protecting our native bee and butterfly populations.

Bee Basics: An Introduction to Our Native Bees, a joint effort between the Pollinator Partnership and the USDA Forest Service. Apart from beautiful illustrations, it contains many practical ideas for helping bees. It is available in free PDF form here:

Status of Pollinators in North America, by the National Research Council (comprised of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine), published by the National Academies Press, 2007. Available for free download: The Organic Consumers Association has a review/synopsis on their website:

The Year the Monarch Didn’t Appear, New York Times, Nov. 24, 2013:

Declining Bee Populations Pose A Threat to Global Agriculture, a Yale e360 report, April 30, 2013:

End Notes:

[1] Attracting Native Pollinators: Protecting North America’s Bees and Butterflies, Xerces Society, 2011; page 5

[2] Status of Pollinators in North America, National Academies Press, 2007, page 1

[3] Itinerant colonies of bees are nothing new. The Egyptians regularly barged hives up and down the Nile, following the blooming plants along the river. Today’s commercial operations truck thousands of hives from the US Southeast over to California, up to the Great Plains, to Maine, and back down to Florida. For a peek into the practice in the late 1800s, see the American Bee Journal, Volume 14, No. 1, here. A more contemporary view can be found at Click the link entitled “Economic Value of Beekeeping.” It will launch a PDF report.

[4] “Declining honey bees a ‘threat’ to food supply,” Associated Press & NBC News Report, May 2, 2007;

[5] Status of Pollinators in North America, page 1

[6] From the Status of Pollinators in North America report, pages 104-105: “An evaluation of experimental evidence for pollination requirements of 107 globally traded fruit and vegetable crops (representing 40 percent of global plant-based food production) by Klein et al. (2007) shows that animal pollination improves production in 75 percent of the crops studied. Most cultivars of another 10 percent of the crops require animal pollination. Another 8.5 percent of the crops do not benefit from animal pollination and its role in production of the remaining 6.5 percent crops is not known. Many crops, however—notably the staple grains that form the foundation of most human diets (rice, wheat, maize, sorghums, millets, rye, barley)—are self-pollinating or pollinated by the wind. Together, species that do not rely on pollinators account for most of the world’s food supply by weight (FAO, 2005).

“Pollinator declines, therefore, do not fundamentally threaten the world’s caloric supplies. However, fruits and vegetables, which add diversity to the human diet and provide essential nutrients, tend to depend heavily on pollinators (Prescott-Allen and Prescott-Allen, 1990; Roubik, 1995). Seven of the nine crops that provide at least 50 percent of the vitamin C available to the human diet globally depend partially or entirely on animal pollination for the production of fruits or seeds (oranges, cabbages, green peppers, tomatoes, melons, tangerines, watermelon) (FAO, 2005; Free, 1993; McGregor, 1976; USDA-NASS, 2006b)

“… Although estimates of the proportion of the human diet that is attributable to animal pollination are occasionally attempted and frequently cited (for example, McGregor’s 1976 estimate that one-third of the human diet can be traced directly or indirectly to animal pollination), the proportion likely varies among countries and regions and depends on dietary preferences, seasonal availability, cultural practices, and economic status of consumers.”

[7] Attracting Native Pollinators, pages 74-76; a more extensive list is given in Status of Pollinators in North America, pages 93-94.

[8] Status of Pollinators in North America, pages 87-93

[9] United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service, 2014, California Almond Objective Measurement Report, available here.

[10] Global Honey Bee Colony Disorders and Other Threats to Insect Pollinators, United Nations Environment Programme Report, 2010: A concise overview of CCD can be found on the Pesticide Action Network website: The Organic Consumers Association has an entire repository of articles on the topic:

[11] Status of Pollinators in North America, page 129

[12] Status of Pollinators in North America, page 6

[13] Attracting Native Pollinators, page 8

[14] Status of Pollinators in North America, page 127

[15] Attracting Native Pollinators, page 11

[16] Status of Pollinators in North America, page 129

[17] The Sixth Great Extinction is Underway, and We’re to Blame, Time Magazine, July 25, 2014, available here:

[18] “New Pollinator Bill Helps Pesticide Industry, Not Bees or Beekeepers,” Center for Food Safety press release, September 12, 2013, available here:

[19] Status of Pollinators in North America, page 12


Peace Meal Supper Club #2: Ghost Festival

This Supper Club theme was announced 10 days before my father passed away. It was a strange stroke of coincidence. The themes inherent in the Ghost Festival have been prominent in the relationship between us for the past 15 years, and as he left this life my sense of loss was mixed with a rich awareness of gratitude.

Contributions to my life include a deeply rooted love for food—not just eating it, but planting it and nurturing it into an abundant crop. He loved to cook also, and was always keen to experimentation. He shared his favorite dishes with great generosity. Other things he gave me were by demonstration: a sharp mechanical mind, facility in a wide range of crafts, a creative eye for solutions, and most of all, an attitude that a person can do what they determine to do, whether it be play fiddle or rebuild an old tractor. His ingenuity far exceeded his unadorned high school education.

He had a remarkable ability to forgive anything and reconcile with anyone—and that is a truly inspiring contribution to my life. Our road to reconciliation was winding and rocky, and navigating it required a few death-defying leaps from one cliff to the next. However, we completed the course and found ourselves becoming good friends late in his life. With each step, we confronted the problems directly and forgave liberally. The release of wrongs was not only between him and me; it helped him resolve wrongs committed against him by his own ancestors. He became a happier person as a result of all this hard work.

As we reconciled, and I could see with clarity, I began to appreciate the sacrifices he made for his family. He wanted the best for us and, given the limitations in which he lived, he achieved that goal. He was kind to our friends, welcoming to all, and would do anything he could for a person once he trusted them.

Clarity of conscience was an unspeakable gift in his final day. I was able to tell him, without qualification, that he was a good man, and that it was okay for him to go. Though I feel his absence, there is no sadness or regret. Our relationship, in spite of the odds, was a good one.

One last gift I’ll mention: he had a truly bizarre sense of humor, dressed up in a cloak of morbidity. As his health was failing, he knew he’d never be able to visit me here in New York. He enjoyed my cooking, however, and would have loved to be here at this meal. Perhaps he found yet another creative solution to a problem. Welcome to supper, Dad.

The menu, fore and aft, follows below.


Peace Meal Supper Club #2: Ghost Festival

Inspired by August celebrations in Japan and China, in which people honor the spirits of their ancestors. This menu reaches beyond the limitations of geography and direct descent.

Course 1:

Futomaki rolls ~ Pickled vegetables

With this traditional offering, we signify our ancestors’ contributions to our present well-being.

Course 2:

Scallion waffle ~ Vegetable tempura ~ Spiced plum sauce

Life is intrinsically savory and sweet. In reconciling both, we achieve sustaining harmony.

Course 3:

Panang tempeh roulade ~ Shiitakes braised with lemongrass ~ Red curry

Our abundance lies bundled in our unselfish service to others.

Course 4:

Seared plums ~ Five spice ice cream ~ Limoncello reduction

Delight is fostered by a clear conscience.


(The following appears on the reverse side of the menu.)

The Ghost Festival in China and the Bon Festival in Japan have their roots in the apocryphal Ullambana Sutra. In this text, Buddha’s disciple Maudgalyayana perceives his mother in torment in hell, so he asks the Buddha how he might release her. He is instructed to make food offerings to a group of monks as they return from a forest retreat. He does so, and sees that his mother is released. He cannot keep himself from dancing with great joy.

Both festivals contain echoes of the Confucian virtue of filial piety, which focuses on the honoring of parents, reconciliation, generosity, and continuance of the family’s good name. The spirit of these practices reaches beyond ideology and national celebration.

~ 1 ~

Our ancestors’ contributions to our lives are fundamental to our identity. We then act in agreement with or rejection of this identity. When we extend our concept of ancestors to include past social progressives, animal advocates, and environmental activists, we sense the depth of our debt to all who have worked for the well-being of all living things. We also gain a greater understanding of our work’s depth and vitality. Keeping our ancestors close in memory allows us to benefit from their inertia. They are the momentous breeze at our threshold.

~ 2 ~

Reconciliation is crucial for achieving sustained harmony. Forgiveness is a key component of reconciling, as it signifies letting go. It frees up all the backward-looking energy and makes it available for moving forward. All whom we’ve wronged or been wronged by—ancestors, forerunners, animals, future generations—benefit from reconciliation with us, for they also have their energy focused on moving forward.

In a similar vein, activists and artists live in a state of dissatisfaction; it drives our desire for change. But we must be able to transcend our struggle in order to maintain balance. We must acknowledge the progress that we are making—even if we are far from our desired goal. Quite possibly, those who preceded us were also unhappy with the progress they made, yet we celebrate their achievements and hope to be as effective.

~ 3 ~

Our abundance lies bundled in our unselfish service to others. Without doubt, we have received, and likewise we should give. Every act of kindness, every step towards liberation, brings us the increasing benefits of full liberation. In the story of Maudgalyayana above, he gave to others so that his mother could be free from suffering. With a generous heart he extended the circle of good will. As a result, the greater reward was his.

~ 4 ~

Delight is fostered by a clear conscience: this is the moral of the story of Maudgalyayana. Once he performed service to others in honor of his mother, he began to see all the sacrifices she had made for him. His conscience—seemingly clouded with ingratitude–was cleared by his action. Learning the merits of a giving heart, he danced joyfully.

Demonstrating goodness to others is a form of honor towards those who have gone before, for it perpetuates their goodness to us. Such continuity of effort enables us to making deeper and longer-lasting changes in the world around us.

Peace Meal Supper Club #1: Liberation

I was very proud to send out an announcement last week to close friends, activist associates, and new acquaintances. It regarded the debut of Peace Meal Supper Club, an intimate evening of fine food and progressive discussion, focused on strengthening ourselves as agents for positive change. It’s a private event, held in the home I share with my partner, The Stapler.  She serves as hostess while I keep the pans hopping on the stove.

The event is simple in concept, like salon-meets-dinner-party. I design a menu centered upon a theme. The diners, while enjoying the meal, freely explore the theme through their dinner conversation.

Peace Meal Supper Club is the physical manifestation of an idea—that food and harmony and social justice and animal rights and environmental responsibility and all other good things can coexist around a single dinner table. It’s the idea that we can all be nourished sufficiently and satisfactorily at the same time, with no harm being done to anyone living. It’s a big idea, so it’s going to take a lot of good food. And a lot of progressive discussion.

These two focal points will manifest in their most natural ways.

The food will be exploratory, fusion-inspired, organic, always vegan. Through the dinner’s four courses, I will highlight ethnic commonalities in the use of techniques and spices, hopefully illustrating our global communion.

The discussion, provided by the diners with only subtle suggestion from me via the menu, will be, like all good discussions, free form, widely ranging, self-governing and civil. But the theme will be clearly on the table, with each course reminding the diners that there is a purpose to our being here.

That leaves only the outcome–which will also be free form and widely ranging. Everyone will respond in their own way, but they will be better informed and perhaps more focused after having come to Supper Club.

The theme for the first one is Liberation—a fitting theme for the month of July, in which so many nations celebrate their liberation from other powers. Sometimes we can understand an idea better through contrast. While it would be easy to say USA vs. China, for example, that is indeed too simplistic. It is much more informative to look at those living amidst liberty yet having their own denied. For example, men incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp; Leonard Peltier—and indeed all indigenous Americans; Mexican nationals working in American agricultural fields; and animals held against their will, used for human food.

While preparing for the debut of Peace Meal Supper Club, I’ve revisited old notes and memories. Scribbles of culinary ideas take shape easily, and with a certain plating flair the result will suffice to break the conversational ice. What’s hard is trying to encapsulate all the intellectual ideas. Showing visual contrast on a plate is easy with color and space; on the palate, I can play with bitter or sweet flavors. But how does one show ideological disparity in a main course?

While I try to figure that out artistically, I will sow seeds with words. Let the diners’ discussion bloom into the fruit of change.

With that in mind, here’s the menu for Peace Meal Supper Club #1: Liberation.

Course 1:

Vegetables Stir-Fried with Afghan Spices ~ Red Chile Aioli ~ Naan

In honor of the 149 hostages presently held in Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp, and the 630 that preceded them

Course 2:

Wild Rice Pilaf ~ Smoked Butternut Skewer ~ Maple Currant Glaze

With respect to Leonard Peltier, US political prisoner since 1977, and to his people, without liberty since 1877

Course 3:

Mushroom Picadillo Tamales ~ Mole Amarillo ~ Roasted Fingerlings

For the 5 million Mexican and American farmworkers excluded from US labor protections

Course 4:

Vanilla Crème Brulee ~ Cherry Chutney ~ Cardamom Cookie

In memory of the billions of animals used annually by the US industrial agricultural system

(On the reverse side of the menu I will offer diners an opportunity to go deeper into the theme via relevant books, websites, and films. The backside of the Liberation menu, therefore, contains the following.)

Seven hundred and seventy nine humans have been incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp since 2002, most of whom were captured under a US-sponsored bounty system. International treaties, Geneva Conventions, UN statutes, US laws, and human rights principles have been openly flouted in order to continue “politically expedient” detention of men without filing formal charges against them. Rampant denial of rights continues under the present administration, though closure of the camp had been promised. Course 1 highlights the Afghan crossroads of cuisine, culture, and capture.

Learn more:

Leonard Peltier, in prison since 1977 for the alleged murder of two FBI agents, represents the indigenous nations who have been systematically eradicated since the arrival of European settlers. His 1970s advocacy of Lakota sovereignty came in the wake of the “Century of Dishonor,” a period marked by repeated treaty violations on the part of the US. His mixed Lakota and Ojibwe heritage is represented in Course 2.

Learn more:

  • In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, by Peter Matthiessen, Viking Penguin, 1983
  • Incident at Oglala, 1992 documentary produced and narrated by Robert Redford
  • Article at Popular Resistance, regarding indigenous sovereignty and human rights,

Perhaps the biggest invisible problem in the US today is the plight of farmworkers. Whether citizens or foreign nationals, they are exempt from key components of US labor law: Child labor in agricultural settings is permitted by the Fair Labor Standards Act; agricultural workers are exposed to unregulated pesticides in the name of research; agricultural workers are exempt from disability and workers’ compensation in many states; overtime hours are not paid. As for ‘legal’ guest workers, former House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel declared the guest worker program to be the closest thing he’d ever seen to slavery. For those who are here ‘illegally,’ the problems only deepen. The overwhelming majority of US farmworkers are of Mexican heritage, and Course 3 is in their honor.

Learn more:

Well over 9 billion animals are killed by the US agricultural system annually. They represent only a fraction of those still living in the system, deemed exempt from even the most basic cruelty regulations. Held against their will and hidden from common view, they are exploited for the sake of temporary appetite. Course 4 is offered in tribute to these animals. When they are released, we will be liberated from inhumanity.

Learn more:

Making Time with Mrs. Fisher

“What hath been done may be done again. Old Arts when they have been long lost, are sometimes recovered again and pass for new inventions.” Jared Eliot, Second Essay on Field Husbandry, 1748

I recently discovered an enlightening artifact of American culinary history, What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking, published in San Francisco in 1881. The first cookbook published by an African-American woman, it is a bonanza of southern treasures, wonderfully old school in its approach.

What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, 1881
What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, 1881

Mrs. Fisher, a freed slave who emigrated from Alabama, became an in-demand caterer and successful entrepreneur in San Francisco. Unable to read or write, she dictated her recipes for this book. Her personality vividly shines throughout the text, and her casual style reveals that she was a true master. It’s also obvious that her food must have been unbelievably delicious. Lucky for us, she wanted us all to learn her methods; she wrote the book “so that [even] a child can understand it and learn the art of cooking.”

Her all-day flavor development techniques are dazzling to read. Her recipe for Compound Tomato Sauce, included below, requires 24 hours of fermentation before the cooking begins. As for the cooking itself, “let it cook all day.” The richness of the aroma can’t be contained by the pages; reading the recipe, you can almost smell the sauce as it marches towards evening. Waiting for that first taste must have required a religious vow.

With Mrs. Fisher’s recipes, time is the chief ingredient. While egg-replacers and sugar substitutes and gluten-free alternatives and other analogs proliferate today, no true substitute for time has been developed. Rather than resist it, we should surrender: sugars and tissues break down with the application of heat, particularly with low heat over a long duration. An onion cooked for 30 minutes will taste richer—and have a more luxurious mouthfeel—than one cooked for 5 minutes. You can rush the onion if you want to, but you’ll have denied yourself a significant amount of pleasure at the table.

Studies[i] conducted in the UK and the US show drastic reductions in the time we spend cooking our meals, measured over the past 30 to 40 years. Not surprisingly, the time we spend enjoying meals has also plummeted. It makes sense: fast food leads to fast consumption. Rushed cooking leaves little to be savored.

Compound Tomato Sauce - Mrs Fisher, 1881
Compound Tomato Sauce recipe from Mrs. Fisher. I provide it not because I think we will all take the necessary two days to make the sauce. I do hope, however, that her spirit will inspire us all to spend more time crafting our meals, and that her joy will carry over to our tables.

It is complicated territory, once you consider factors such as income level, single-parenthood, number of jobs held simultaneously, and age. But there are also very simple scenarios.

I recently spent a weekend helping a friend at an animal sanctuary. While we were making dinner one evening, an intern passed through the kitchen. Her question was very to-the-point: “How do you cook mushrooms?” Her pace slowed, but she never actually stopped walking as I began my answer. She continued into the living room and opened her laptop.

Her age—early 20s—could be used against her, and we could indict the current generation for their inability to function in a physical, non-digital world. But the problem extends further back.

In Asheville, North Carolina—a foodie town if ever there were one—my next-door neighbor was a true gentle lady of the south. She absolutely loved food, especially the breads that I would share now and then. Upon learning more about my culinary background, she asked if I’d be willing to teach her one thing: how to make gravy. She was in her 70s.

Both of these examples point to something bigger: that the generation before them was missing something, too. And in fact, tracing the history of the American food from 1881—when Mrs. Fisher published her book—until now, it is easy to see us steadily relinquishing traditional foodways as convenience foods pervaded the grocery and markets. We traded our food heritage, rich with so many multicultural influences and an astonishing array of native foods, for extra time to do nothing. We have of course filled that nothing time with a lot of things, with watching television still being the number one time-taker.

The tradeoffs are many, and are well documented: declining health, loss of life skills, disconnection from food traditions and even family heritage. But it’s not the end of the world yet. For while our society was gorging on convenience, plant tissue was still behaving the same way it always had. And it still behaves in the same manner today.

We can reconnect. The cooking principles from 130 years ago are just as functional today, and Mrs. Fisher’s oeuvre stands as a cairn on a trail we can reclaim. The biggest investment asked of us is time, which coincidentally is as plentiful as it was 130 years ago if we unplug a bit.

The payoffs will be substantial, with the reversal of the symptoms mentioned above. But the most immediate return will be deeper enjoyment at the dinner table. This enjoyment is magnified by the experience of discovery, as we learn ancient secrets all over again and savor our burgeoning skills.

Onion Soup
There are luxuriously complex flavors locked away in onions. Coaxing them out requires courtship, something deeper than a fast-food fling.

I’ll leave you with a recipe that is ancient in origin: Onion Soup. From its humble beginnings—poor people’s food in ancient Rome—to its 20th-century vogue, its goodness increases with the amount of time you take to prepare it. There are luxuriously complex flavors locked away in these roots. Coaxing them out requires courtship, something deeper than a fast-food fling. Perhaps this recipe can help you restore your relationship with food.

Onion Soup

2 tablespoons olive oil
3 medium yellow onions, peeled, halved, and sliced thinly
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 pinch black pepper
1 splash balsamic vinegar or red wine
3 cups vegetable stock, unsalted
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1/4 teaspoon rubbed sage, or 4 leaves fresh sage
1 bay leaf

1. Warm a heavy-bottomed 2 quart soup pot over low heat.
2. Add the olive oil and the onions. Sprinkle in the salt and pepper.
3. Stir to distribute onions evenly across the bottom of the pot.
4. Leave the onions in the pot on low heat for 2 hours, uncovered. Stir every half hour or so and redistribute.
5. After 2 hours, add the splash of balsamic and stir.
6. Add the vegetable stock, rosemary, sage, and bay leaf.
7. Bring pot to a simmer. Simmer slowly, uncovered, for 20 minutes. Remove from heat.
8. Add a little more salt if desired.
9. Ladle into soup cups and serve with a slice of crusty baguette or multigrain bread, toasted.

Yield: 2 servings

Note the absence of sugar or other flavor additives. Sugar is sometimes added to aid in the caramelization process-but as you will see, no help is necessary. And you certainly won’t miss the sweetness–the onions get so sweet on their own that you’ll be tempted to make this a dessert soup.

Also, I have omitted the modern sacrament of cheese au gratin. Apart from all the issues associated with the consumption of animal products, I find that the cheese simply gets in the way of a great soup.


Daily Diet of Civil Rights

Civility at the dinner table has long been a value of mine. Taking care not to speak ill of others, engage in arguments, or discuss disturbing news contributes to a pleasant dining experience. Increasingly, though, I’ve come to view it as much more than having decent manners and keeping conversations positive. The food on our plates can undermine all that politeness, making eating one of the most uncivil acts we can perform. In a world where our ethics overlap in complicated ways, sometimes a bit of knowledge can make a monumental difference.

To illustrate, consider a report recently released by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) regarding the effectiveness of state educational systems in delivering civil rights education.[1] Three states received ‘A’ letter grades. Interestingly, these three states were in the old South: Louisiana, Georgia, and South Carolina. Fourteen states received failing grades, many of which are in the traditional north and the west.

The report explains: “Rather than recognizing the profound national significance of the civil rights movement, many states continue to mistakenly see it as a regional matter, or a topic of interest mainly for black students…Generally speaking, the farther away from the South—and the smaller the African-American population—the less attention paid to the movement.”

It seems fitting that here in North Carolina, a center of civil rights activity in the 1960s, there is a museum dedicated to the movement. The International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro is dedicated to preserving the memory of a specific event–the Woolworth lunch counter sit-ins that began in February 1960.[2] Name-checking Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mohandas Gandhi, and others, it pays tribute to those whose work is done. But it stops there. It issues no rousing call-to-action for the many civil rights violations that occur daily. It seems to not know of the ongoing struggle among American agricultural workers in the same state. However, civil rights are not only a Black and White issue.

In light of the SPLC statement about proximity, it seems odd that farm workers are not mentioned: agriculture is the state’s 3rd largest industry.[3]

Organic plant agriculture contributes to a fair world for all beings.
Organic plant agriculture contributes to a fair world for all beings.

The problem is not unique to North Carolina, by any means. In my previous home state of New Mexico—a state with a very active border—biases were frequently strong against agricultural workers. I recall having an animated conversation with an editor there, one whose most recent work was on a manuscript with a strong civil rights edge. I stated my frustration over the fact that many agricultural workers are routinely denied medical treatment. She reacted angrily, offended by my suggestion that they be cared for. Simply put, they were illegal and had no rights. She, however, was a hard-working American.

Her response laid bare the sticky center of the problem: we have conflated the terms ‘agricultural worker’ and ‘foreign national.’ Additional terms, such as ‘guest worker,’ ‘migrant farm worker,’ and ‘what-about-Americans-doing-farm-work?’ only cloud the issue. It’s easier to put them all in the same category—‘illegals’–and justify institutionalized civil rights abuses. If they’re not citizens, they don’t have rights. And tagging them all as non-citizens instills plenty of distance between us and their problem.

But just as civil rights are not only a Black and White issue, they are also not a citizenship issue. The question of citizenship is really a moot point, to be honest. Regulations that govern the agricultural industry endanger the well-being and lives of all workers, domestic and imported.

Consider that child labor in agricultural settings is permitted by the Fair Labor Standards Act.[4] All workers are exposed to unregulated pesticides in the name of research.[5] Many states exempt agricultural workers from disability and workers’ compensation.[6] Overtime hours are not paid.[7] The rights infractions go on and on, in regulations which apply to American citizens, in an industry with the highest occupational fatality rate in the country and an astronomical rate of chemical-related illnesses.[8]

Cesar Chavez: Farm Labor Leader, Civil Rights Worker, and Vegan.
Cesar Chavez: Farm Labor Leader, Civil Rights Worker, and Vegan.

It is true that the problem is enormously exaggerated when the H-2 guest worker program is also considered. H-2 workers are denied the ability to change jobs if they are mistreated. They are bound to the employers who hired them. They can be subject to deportation or other retaliation, without recourse. They live in squalid conditions and are denied medical treatment for on-the-job injuries. Former House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel declared the guest worker program to be the closest thing he’d ever seen to slavery.[9]

Rarely do those of us who enjoy the fruits of all this hazardous labor ever see the workers themselves. The fields are far removed from our neighborhoods, cities, and perhaps even our states of residence. As the SPLC observed, the farther away the problem, the less attention it is given. Most of us will never see an industrial farm worker with our own eyes. We’re not really sure of where they actually work.

So, being a determined civil eater, what am I to do about this unseen problem? Well, to begin with, I can get educated, just as the SPLC urges.  The more I know, the more I can fight for changes long term. I can lobby, I can petition, I can call my representatives. I can support organizations such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the Organic Consumers Association, and Farmworker Justice–groups who are fighting against this almost impenetrable wall that protects industrial agriculture from the growing indignation of consumers.

But I must realize that it will take decades to dismantle the current legislation and enact proper protections. The recent GMO labeling battles in various states illustrate this all too vividly.

Perhaps more immediately, however, I can take charge of my own dinner plate, defiantly placing on it only the foods which will support positive change.

It’s an easy challenge to state when the terms are left sufficiently vague. Let me be more specific, then, and present a more progressive tactic: I will place on my dinner plate only foods that are grown organically. Further, due to the accumulation of toxins, labor abuses, and other worker hazards[10]—not to mention environmental degradation and a greatly imbalanced energy-to-calorie ratio[11]–none of that food will be animal-based. I will employ an organic diet of plant-only foods. Not only at dinner, but for breakfast and lunch also.

It should be very plain to all of us: Eating is a much bigger act than simply putting food in one’s mouth. It is but one component of a tightly-integrated and interminable cycle. My eating must consider the well-being of soils, waterways, and workers. I can influence changes in the larger world by making changes in my very small world. When I sit at my table and regard all the people that provided my sustenance, one thing is very clear: rewarding a system that endangers them is grossly uncivil.

Is it all I can do? No, but it is something that everyone can do. And while it might take years for the industry to catch up, in the meantime I’m reinforcing the good that is out there, and I’m not empowering the bad. Individual actions do matter. They add up so much that even Wal-Mart—a corporation with a deplorable labor relations record–is quickly becoming a major player in the organic game. Which means that I will have more to learn, and more adjustments to make. The fight for civil rights is far from over, and it requires constant attention to detail.

And by the way, the problem isn’t as far away as we might think. For me, it’s as near as my dinner plate.

Additional Reading:

The SPLC report on civil rights education is here:

The SPLC also has a vast collection of writings regarding agricultural guest workers.

Civil rights are human rights, and Human Rights Watch provides other useful reports and suggested actions.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has been fighting for agricultural laborers since 1993.

The National Center for Farmworker Health, at

Farmworker Justice, at

The Hands That Feed Us: Challenges and Opportunities for Workers Along the Food Chain, Food Chain Workers Alliance,

Inventory Of Farmworker Issues And Protections In The United States – March 2011, By Bon Appétit Management Company Foundation United Farm Workers;

What’s Wrong with Industrial Agriculture, Organic Consumers Association,

The Fruits of Their Labor: Atlantic Coast Farmworkers and the Making of Migrant Poverty, 1870-1945, Cindy Hahamovitch, The University of North Carolina Press

[1] Teaching the Movement 2014: The State of Civil Rights Education in the United States;

[2] International Civil Rights Center & Museum;; my comments regarding the museum’s presentations are drawn from a personal visit made in August of 2012. A blog entry about my visit can be found here:

[4]; the Fact Sheet entitled “Farm Jobs” gives a succinct synopsis. Also see “Fields of Peril: Child Labor in US Agriculture,” Human Rights Watch,

[5]; the consent of the worker is not required.

[6] Inventory Of Farmworker Issues And Protections In The United States – March 2011, By Bon Appétit Management Company Foundation United Farm Workers;

[7] Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, As Amended;; exemptions begin on page 27.

[8] International Labour Organization, Agriculture: a hazardous work;–en/index.htm